Sunday, 16 November 2014

Unstructured Month

I am making my New Year's resolutions early. Early means now. Honestly, I am making life resolutions, because I am sometimes not very good at life. Here they are, in no specific order.

1. Do not end up involuntarily in Lucy's spare bedroom for the THIRD time due to my lack of judgement in relationships.
2. Do not break my foot again for the THIRD time due to my lack of judgement in running and overall recklessness.

So what I am saying is, offseason (or, maybe, I should just call it "life") is going well.

That time we did a run and didn't start on schedule
On the Labour Day weekend, I made plans to run up and down Mountain Highway with my fellow West End-ers. I was the driver. In order to be slightly less ridiculous than normal, I planned to pick my friends at 9am. Somehow, what started as an orderly plan ended up with a couple extra people being invited, leaving downtown 45minutes late, and believing that Anthony and April somehow got lost at the top of Grouse Mountain.

All on a technically easy, impossible-to-miss route that Matt and I used to do at 5:30am on a weekday before work.

So, at the end of the run, soaked by the rain (of course in rains in Vancouver in what is technically still summer), as I am having what some may call a Type-A meltdown at the propsect of us one hour behind schedule and my two friends potentially lost on the mountain somewhere (and what I call "a reflection on my preferences for starting and finishing a run on time with all people present and accounted for"), the concept of "Unstructured Day" was born.

Unstructured Day would be a day that is unplanned, go-with-the-flow, do what we feel like. Apparently, this day starts you wake up and call your friends, and we decide what we want to do. This concept was both traumatic and stressful to me. My friends and I spoke about having this day, but it never happened: since the weather co-operated I instead opted to plan my runs a week in advance and leave at 6am (I have other running partners who believe in early mornings and very strong coffee). 

No-run November
 My foot is getting better - it would be getting better slightly faster if, on a beauty morning two weekends ago, I didn't decide to do the Grouse Grind. In regular, non-supportive shoes. And then, due to being rested, to look at my pace and see I was on-track for a sub-40min Grouse Grind. It turns out that trying to win the Grouse Grind is never, ever worth it, and will end me up in the St. Paul's emergency to get X-ray-ed (and also reverted to ultra-hobbling and being unable to leave my apartment for another two days).

So due to lack of other options, I started treating my own life like a vacation. After months of resistance, I now have Unstructured Days, or, as it turns out, what other people call "weekends".

My apartment is old
I am trying to embrace unstructured life. However, I worry that I am getting soft in regards to time and scheduling and life.

This became apparent when I offered to host the VFAC club meetingthis past Saturday. I needed to have a clean apartment and food and drink for 10-20 people (our club members sometimes have moral objections to RSVP-ing).

I planned ahead of time - a bit. However, Barry became nervous about my lack of communication and "volunteered" to come early to help me prepare. The meeting was at 12:30pm. Three hours before saw me still in my gym clothes, with a messy apartment, semi-started chili, and nowhere near enough food. Oh, and I decided this was a good time to do laundry.

Barry finished the workout "early", and at 11am we got to work. Somehow, by 11:45, the food was more or less ready, the place wasn't too dishevelled, my laundry was in the dryer in the basement, and Barry had left and returned with beer (I had not purchased this ahead of time). Then we decided to plug in my wine fridge to use for beer. And that is when sparks came out of the electrical socket and none of the lights in my apartment would turn on.

Luckily, Barry has life skills. Also luckily is that my landlord "assigned" me to one of the building tenants, Jeff, who also performs handyman work.

I texted Jeff, that my apt had no lights, and that I wanted it to have lights.
Jeff: "Go outside - it's sunny."

Barry found the fuse box, which, as it likely pre-dated colour TV, was difficult to figure out. 

I called Jeff while Barry fiddled around with old electrical-type things.

Me: So 15 people are coming by in half an hour. Not to be high-maintenance, but I would like there to be light.
Jeff: You need to flip the circuits.
Me: There is nothing there to flip.
Jeff: By "flip" I mean screw and unscrew. By the way, what the hell were you doing that caused the breaker to flip? You know you can't just all the appliances at once.
Me: Yes, obviously I shouldn't have been so rash as to actually want to use electricity.
Jeff: You know, I came by your apartment last week to fix your electric fireplace because you said it was "your move" to invite a guy over to watch the fire. And now you want light. I don't even want to know what your next request will be.

(During this time, I have located the extra fuse-screws that I somehow put in the top drawer of my bedside table. Barry is trying to put them in and is somewhat stressed about the no-light situation. It is now noon.)

Jeff: So I will leave extra fuses outside your door in case this happens again.
Me: Like the electrical Easter Bunny?
Jeff: So if this happens again, you know that there are two fuses - one for the appliances, one for the lights. If the one for the lights blows out again, you can always switch in the appliance one.
Me: So you are telling me that I will need to choose between lights or having a working stove and fridge? I don't want Sophie's Choice about what in my apartment is going to work.
Jeff: Your fridge will keep things cold for a couple hours if it's off, so that's the obvious decision.

So my apartment has light again, and it's 12:05, and Barry realizes I have no coffee making facilities, and goes off to Starbucks to get coffee. I retrieve my laundry, and it is now 12:27. Barry returns, and about 1 minute later the first person arrives (early).

The meeting went well, and Barry and I are still totally friends (I think? Barry?). But it does mean that there is a line between "being relaxed at life" and "being good at life", and I might have crossed over a bit too far.

These days, I wake up without an alarm, drink coffee, read in bed, go to the gym. I go shopping on Main Street for used books and vintage cardigans. Now I can finally walk, I make my way down to English Bay and watch as people stream past, laughing in the wintry sunlight. I drink tea and read a newspaper and listen in on first dates at Delaneys. My life felt very big, out in the mountains. Here, it is smaller, contained to a neighbourhood - but it gives me time to slow down and realize just how much beauty can be in the day-to-day, how much more I notice when I walk through life instead of running past.

My favourite poem has a line: "I believe in the beauty of broken things." So I believe. All the last month - the frustration, the early mornings on the rowing machine, that bittersweet ache in my stomach when I see fresh snow on the North Shore, the hard blue of English Bay and the last leaves on the sidewalks - it's all beautiful. And I have slowed down enough to see, really see.

A few years ago, I had the same ache to run a marathon - really run it - and four months later I did a 3:05. My body knows what it wants, and I know what it's like to feel a race inside me, like I feel the mountains inside me now - uneasy, restless, keeping me awake and hungry. It's not always a comfortable feeling, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Please No Panic

My friend James is the CFO of a mining company that has a site office in Medellin, Colombia. Before one of his first trips to Colombia, he received an email (considerately written in English, as his Spanish still starts and ends with "cerveza") about what to expect:

"Medellin has several muggings. Of this I have experienced. Please no panic."

I loved this e-mail more than I should have. It says, very nicely, that yes, bad things can happen - but don't lose your shit. And, for the record, James has been travelling to Colombia for over three years and has yet to be mugged (I think he is just not trying hard enough).

Which is, to say, when my foot pretty much exploded last week, I totally lost my shit.

oh man
Things were feeling good and I was getting itchy feet. In my case, itchy feet meant texting Matt at 4:30pm on a Wednesday to do a 6:30am speed workout the next day. We did some intervals to a moody sunrise around the seawall. The first was warm up, the second was fast, the third felt tight - and the fourth I stopped mid-way. My foot hurt like it had never hurt.

I hobbled back. At first, everyone (including me) thought I was being melodramatic.

Me, 7:30am: "Matt, I will be calm - can I call you 9pm if it doesn't feel better?"
Me, 10am: "My foot still hurts!!"
Me, 12:30pm: "I went to the walk-in clinic. They refused to give me an x-ray or bone scan requisition. The doctor suggested swimming, advil, and that I "relax"."

Thanks to my very awesome superphysio Ramsey Ezzat, and very awesome RMT Matt Thompson (he may trash-talk when running and have questionable endurance, but he is very professionally competent), we figured out I had metatarsalgia. Not a stress fracture, not a deal breaker - but meaning that there is still stuff going on with my ankle that I need to fix.

It also meant, for four very painful days, that I couldn't walk. So for an entire weekend, I only left my apartment to hobble one block to the block to the gym in hopes of biking at level 2 resistance to try and loosen things up. Thankfully (for me) and possibly unfortunately (for her), my very close friend Stacy was in town visiting. This meant activities like playing a drinking game when watching "Eat Pray Love" where every time "relationship" is mentioned, you drink (Stacy had to go out to get more wine).

But it also meant, when Stacy was out - it was just me. And my head. And a goddamn sore foot.

And it was hard. Being injured for four months and coming out of it took pretty much everything I had. I white-knuckled parts, held on for dear life, and told myself: "it's ok, you won't have to go through this again."

you do / what you can do / with what you've got
Here's the thing - I got X-Rays when my ankle was sore back in January. The way things look, it may never really go back to normal. There's things to fix, and it will get better - but maybe never perfect -  and I work every damn day to do what I need to do to run.

Sometimes in life, though, there are no answers, and no real certainty.  For someone like me, it's hard. The same time, for someone like me - it's a choice. You can't always pick what you love - sometimes, it chooses you. I wake up, some mornings, and I wish I was an easier person. I have an amazing job. I live in a wonderful apartment in a neighbourhood that feels like home. I have friends and family and a life. I wish I could go to the gym for my hour, do some weights, dress up, go out for drinks or a movie or brunch or a walk and have it be enough, have it make me happy.

And I do those things, and love them - but it's never, ever enough. My feet - oh god - my feet are so itchy, and I dream of wet boardwalks, of roots and mud and the smell of earth and rain seeping down the hillside. I dream of clouds rolling in, of the gasp of breath on uphills, and the forest through mist. Vancouver is home, and the mountains have a dark, uneasy beauty.

But the thing with love, and it hurts, some days, so much - but it also makes the colours sharper, and my eyes clearer. I ran for months, and I was grateful every damn second. I ran with joy and abandon and so much gratitude - and that's how it'll be like when I come back. I may never, really, be better. So I may need to live with this uncertainty as long as I run. It's bittersweet, and loss is the other side of love. The thing is - loss makes the colour sharper. It cracks, and cracks again, and into that space can move a life.

it's not the same
So, after losing my shit, really losing it - I had to get on with life. And I realized that things weren't the same as this January - I wasn't the same. My friends came over last Sunday with dinner and groceries. Since then, I've been so lucky to have the support of the run community. And at the end of the day, I do what I need to do - get up, get to the gym for 5:30am, get on the bike or the rowing machine and get it done.  It's been just over a week, and things already feel better (and I also have calluses on my hands and have befriended the imitation crossfit crowd at the YMCA, thanks to my rowing enthusiasm and intense porno-breathing).

I wanna get better
The thing is, even with setbacks, life still moves on. This last Saturday, I went out to see Lucy's husband's (Chris) band play at the Princeton. The band was great, and we drank beer and joined in as the other wives yelled "take it off!" at their husbands onstage. Then the band started to play the song "Down by the Water" - and Chris dedicated it to me. I remember playing this song for Chris, back when I was living in their guest room in January (my life goal for 30 is basically to not stay in Lucy and Chris' guest room due to a poor romantic decision). I remember getting off the bus, walking home in the fog, and hearing Chris already practising on his guitar.

So, as the band finished their set, what else could I do? I got up, with my slightly gimpy foot, and joined Lucy on the tiny dance floor. And we yelled and danced and laughed, as the band kicked into "Lonely Boy", and the flourescent lights swept the dance floor, and a train passed by the windows at the back. 

I know I'll get better, and I know I'll be running again - and in the meantime, all the joy, all the colours - it's still there - and sometimes the only answer to setbacks is to finish your drink, get up, and dance.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Training, but different

Manquam Lake

I went for a run with my friend a couple evenings ago. It had rained all day, and the air was washed clean. We started in English Bay, blanketed by low clouds, the seawall a glistening grey. As we ran, it got darker, and the lights of the North Shore came on. Later, we would weave home through the west end, drink too much wine and stay up too late (for me - anything past 9pm is late). She looked at me: "This is perfect - I don't want any of it to change." I feel the same way.

Transrockies was one big, huge adventure, a 6-day high in the mountains. My life, now, is on a smaller scale. I still have adventures - but they take place in the quiet dark before work, during early sunsets, on weekend mornings with the fall chill in the air.

At the same time, training can be about doing the little things - core exercises here, 5km babyruns there - and having the deep trust that, one day, they will add up to the right big thing.

Also, alternatively, this post can be titled: "What I am doing for training", as my laptop continues to think Strava is a porn site, and as such, I haven't uploaded a workout for about a month.

False Creek mornings
For the last three years, Katie and I have met at the Triple O's near the bridge, at a time that pretty much guarantees we start in the dark, to run around False Creek. This run is what "same time, same place?" means. This run means I get a "good morning" text at an hour that makes me smile, strap on my watch, and run over Burrard with a moon overhead. The objective of the run is to talk: dating, running, yoga, family - as much as 12km can get us, and it gets us far.

When I was coming back from my stress fracture, the first 30min run involved me taking the bus over to Kits, and running along False Creek with Katie in the pale April sunlight, because this was one of the runs I missed the most.

Not going sub-40min on the Grouse Grind
Every Wednesday I get up too early (I think there is a trend here) and head over to the Grouse Grind. I used to drive over Lion's Gate to the early light over the mountains - lately, it's been with windshield wipers and headlights on. Every Wednesday, fellow West End-er and unofficial pacer Anthony continues with his misplaced optimism: "Today is a good day to go sub-40!" (at the start), "You can still make it, but you have to go very fast!" (at the half-way), "Go! Go! Go! (struggling at the last 3/4), and "Well, you were trying very hard." (at the end, where I am inevitably slower but triumphant to have finished the damn thing).

I have done the grind, already sweating in the early heat to warm July sunlight, in the dark, with a headlamp, through mist. I was surprised by my friends on my 30th birthday with a tiara just before the 1/4 mark, and prosecco and chocolate at the top (we tried to pop a screw top...this is what happens when you wake up at 5am). 

Not going to VFAC on Thursdays
I start every Thursday with the best of intentions: sleep in, eat well during the day, and actually go to VFAC in the evening - and not just the drinks part. Then my sleep in ends at 545am, and I am awake and far too energetic and I need to not text all of my friends who are still very much asleep. So I end up at hot yoga by 6:30am (lately, accompanied to Celine teacher seems to be going through a breakup). 

By the time it's 5pm, I am home and already contemplating changing into pajamas...not exactly running hard in the park to the early dusk. Instead, April and I meet up near Denman, and run around the seawall - talking about life and running and sometimes, not talking. By the Lighthouse, we stop: look out at the water, across to the mountains. Appreciate the sunset, when the sky turns neon next to the Lion's Gate. Appreciate the clouds, when sea matches sky and everything is washed in shiny grey. Then, like re-entering the city, head up to Denman, and the neon signs, as the streetlights start to turn on.

Hungover Saturdays
I always tell myself on Friday nights: go to yoga, go read, go to bed early. Somehow that always turns into going out for a drink or four and falling into bed somewhere close to midnight. Luckily, evening sober Alex makes hungover morning Alex coffee, and the morning somehow gets going. And 8:30am finds me at Lucy and my set run meeting spot: the bathrooms at Grouse Mountain (this is what happens when Friday night drinking precedes Saturday morning coffee). 

We start the climb towards Mosquito Creek - and we are always wearing one too many layers, or apologizing for being slow, or not even talking and just working, together, on the first long uphill. And then we reach St. George's bench, where the trail mellows, and we pick our way across roots and down mountain bike ladders and the previous week unfolds. Whatever was going on with work or family or life picks up where it left off. By the time we are at the Lynn Headwaters turnaround, and burning back up the stairs, anything can come up into the quiet of breath and sweat. Some stories, some things, take longer to tell, to really get at. The trail, the early sunlight through the trees, the wet boardwalks - there is time for backstory, there is time for reflection, and there is always time to listen.

Standing on higher ground / but when you hear the sounds / you realize it's just the wind
I turned 30 a couple weeks ago. I have friends who got married, just had a baby, bought a house. I am so lucky to celebrate these milestones with them. And, certain days, it feels like I am the one left at the bar, just when the lights go on. I work at a job I love - on a contract with an end date. I live in a beautiful old apartment in the West End - that I rent. I am single - and still figuring things out.

I used to have a plan, and have clear goals, with deadlines and timelines and milestones. These days, I'm not sure what my future looks like - but I am excited to find out.

I wake up some days and think about falling in love, again. The thing is, I'm not sure when - or even if - that big love will come along. So, instead, I fall in love with my life every day in so many small ways. I fall in love with living on the spine of a rainforest - running in the rain, through clouds, with the smell of wet leaves and the quiet hum of rain. I fall in love with dreamy weekends in Kelowna, waking up late to the chatter of my friends and brunch out on the balcony in the late summer sunshine. I fall in love with one drink too many and laughing, really laughing, with my friends out wearing heels and tank tops and staying out too late in our neighbourhood. I fall in love with morning seawalls - the changing light, the tree on Siwash rock, the sulfur piles on the North Shore. I fall in love with sitting outside on the front steps on Chris and Lucy's house as the sun sets red over Dundarave, listening to Chris play the guitar in the mellow evening cool. 

And, after so many months, so much patience and slow build and setbacks - I can run, really run, run long and run until my lungs feel scraped open - and it feels like a miracle.

So, on Sundays, I get up early - 5am early. I have coffee, and do core, and drive over Lion's Gate before sunrise as the mountains are still purple. And I start, with a full 2L heavy on my back, with pockets stuffed with gels. And my legs wake up as I jog uphill - slowly, because we have a long ways to go, but I'm moving and breathing and hurting just the right amount. 

I break it down: eat every 40 minutes, drink enough, be careful of my ankle, keep moving. And the light through the trees gets brighter, and suddenly we're up above the treeline, and it still hurts but it's so beautiful and my breath is steady and the trail is winding, higher and higher, in front of me. And when the downhill comes - my legs are steady and my body just knows where to go, and I can drop and keep on dropping. I go to bed Sunday and wake Monday, go to work with the memory of glaciers behind my eyes.

Black Tusk, seen from Panorama Ridge

Golden Ears

This late season running on dates where, other years, there would be snow, is a gift. The red leaves and orange grass remind me that, any day, the rains will start and not end until next Spring. It won't last - and because of that, it is all the more beautiful. 

And life can be like running: passing through beautiful places, not staying, but leaving with the memory of late sun on skin as the rain starts and days get shorter. Falling in love in little ways can still break a heart in little ways. To miss a place or a breath or a feeling as much as a person - and to keep going, without haste but without hesitation, to find the next place where the trail goes.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Come on and let your red heart show

When I was sad eight or nine months ago (which now seems like a lifetime ago, but at the time seemed like my entire life), I couldn't get out of bed in the mornings. I stopped running on my own - early morning alarms became snooze button after snooze button. The only way I could run was if I was meeting people. I woke up tired, started my run sad, but somehow, by those final kilometers, my mind could breathe peacefully.

Last May, I ran the Grand Canyon double-crossing with a group of friends. It was a beautiful day, with hard parts. One of the hard parts was me. Running long, running on trails - there are so many ups and downs. The highs are giddy: remote places, strange and lovely places, the surprising strength and trust in your body. The lows can be so, so hard: facing down hours and hours of hard running on tired legs with a questioning mind.

I felt good - my body, anyways. We were there for the experience: to take pictures, take walk breaks, take our time. I pushed, and pushed hard. I pushed other people to go hard. That's okay, maybe, in a workout - a tempo, even a two hour run. Not on a 14+ hr day. Not everybody can be pushed - I ignored that other people hit low points, and the best they could do is what they were doing: keep moving, keep going, knowing it will get better but not exactly knowing when.

Everyone, during the run, took a turn at the back of the group. Everyone - except me. Here's the thing about running long in groups - we're supposed to get each other through the ups and downs. I take my spot at the back of the group, because it will always, sometime, be me back there, relying on my friends to pull me through.

So I finished the run - with miles and miles of Canyon under my legs, with photos, and with a slightly empty feeling at what was supposed to be the group hug at the end. We made it, but I didn't help to make it together.

"I went out into the hollow wood / because a fire is in my head."
Me, and every other runner, every other person, gets lonely sometimes. Running finds the raw edges of this loneliness, and each step covers them a bit more. Each grey seawall before the sunrise is a smooth blanket over a broken heart or ragged mind. I leave my apartment empty, and I finish peaceful.

I know I am happy when I get get up and make it out the door on my own, before my alarm clock. Some friends are different - I know a guy who got lost, really lost, 5 hours with two granola bars in his backpack lost, on Crown Mountain. It was getting dark, and he was tired. But out there, in the grand quiet, he enjoyed the solitary sunset over the mountains. Others are like me - we struggle with the first steps, the getting going, and we quietly help each other through early mornings and miles until, once again, it feels easy.

I talk about running, a lot, when I don't have words. Running is easy. Sad or depressed becomes tired, becomes training hard. Anxious becomes a taper. There are ups and downs in running, like life. But running has a finish line - a victory, an achievement, a happy ending. Running has measureable improvement, a training plan, success stories. Life just keeps on going.

So here is what I have been trying to say. A friend of a friend - someone I never met, don't know - killed themself a few days ago. An athlete, part of a different community. This isn't my story, and this certainly isn't my grief. But running is my community, and my people. In life, on the trails, I have relied on other people to pull me along when it seemed like there were too many miles ahead of me and I was just so tired.

And I believe the strength of a running group, of a community, isn't just in how we celebrate the ups. Life and running can be hard: bodies, hearts and heads can all break down. It's about realizing the need to take a turn at the back - it's understanding the downs,  being there, quietly,walking beside until someone is ready, bit by bit, to start running again.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Transrockies, take two

photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography

Transrockies is a 6 day run in the Colorado Rockies, covering 120 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing, and 2kms of running through a creek. It takes place at elevations ranging from 8,000 to 12,500 feet. It's called a run, and not race. Really, it's summer camp for adults - adults whose hobbies involve pain, walking slowly uphill, caffeinated gels, and 5:15am wake ups. It's a week spent with race organizers and crew who have names like Houda, Turbo, Florida Joe and Scooter and wear cowboy hats and flannel shirts. It's the type of event where the organizer talks about the day's events during dinner, and the day's events include a participant called "crazy Tracy" paying back $20 by sticking the bill in her cleavage and having the guy pull it out. It's a bit corny and a bit funny and a complete departure from real life. It's waking up at 5am to a chilly sunrise, steam rising off the lake, putting on damp shoes and drinking too much coffee before a stiff uphill. It's holding hands at every finish line. It's a cold tent and disorganized clothing and hanging out in lawn chairs or with foam rollers in the afternoons. It's putting on every piece of clothing and trying to fall asleep to the snores from the tent next to you. It's listening to a guy with a harmonica and a guitar in front of a camp fire as the light fades behind the mountains and the stars come out, so bright and so close.

standard TRR aid station volunteer, photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography

I don't want to wait anymore / I'm tired of looking for answers / take me some place where there's music and there's laughter
I dreamed of doing this run when I got a stress fracture diagnosis and put on a boot at the beginning of February.  I dreamed of this run when I was in the pool, doing lap after lap, as the March rain streaked the windows. I dreamed of doing this race in April when I tried to balance on one leg at the YMCA and watched the sky lighten through the windows outside. I thought of this run when I ran around the entire seawall for the first time in May, and then required needles poked into my leg the week after. When I paced Barry in the San Diego100 mile this past June and did my first slow, downhill run on trails to the early evening light, I thought of this run. And then in July, when I did my first week with 100kms of running, I thought again about how much I wanted to go to this run - and I talked to Shannon, talked again, and finally booked a plane ticket.

Our pre-race training consisted of three easy runs around False Creek, talking about boys and life, and our pre-race planning consisted of co-ordinating outfits.

Day 0

Post-afternoon thunderstorms in Buena Vista

That's how I found myself on Buena Vista the day before the race, running dusty uphills through scrubby pines, feeling like my lungs would burst. Once again, I scattered 6 days' worth of running and camping clothes across the 1970s style cabin at Pinon Court. Shannon arrived early evening, having hitched a ride from Flagstaff with a husband and wife who were running as a team for 6 days to celebrate the wife's 40th birthday. 

Day 1, really: 21miles, 2700ft
We woke up at 5:23am to my alarm clock playing "the Circle of Life" from the Lion King. Shannon did not kick my ass for this, and instead settled into writing the last exam of her university undergrad at the tiny kitchen table. She finished her exam at 7:40am, and we walked over to the start line.

I had trained for the race for a grand total of 6 weeks (4 weeks + 2 weeks taper). Both of us had no idea how our bodies would hold up. We did know that another women's team had the a former Olympian runner - so we knew we'd be gunning for second place, in the best scenario.

The race started with an uphill, climbing switchbacks on a sandy road through short pines. The sun was already hot at 8:30am. We were breathing hard, and moving not so fast. And then we looked ahead - and realized we were in third place. Shannon and I were definitely not the fittest runners, and we are not the best at hill climbs, or even sprints. But we had each other, and we had the memory of the year before, when we realized we could drop, and drop hard, on any downhill.

So we just told each other good job, told each other to keep going, and slowly passed the team and took second place. At the top of the first hill, surrounded by red rocks and a dusty road, we didn't bother with the aid station. Instead, we took a gel, took a deep breath, and kicked it downhill as hard as we could.

Like some kind of miracle, my ankle was pain free. We kept dropping - skimming over rocks, taking sharp turns, and muscling up the remaining climbs. It was hot, and getting hotter. I ran out of water the final stretch - a slight uphill on a dirt road with far-off clouds.

We finished - first place was far, so far ahead of us. But we had a 20-minute lead on third. And that day we realized that, yes, we would have to work, and work hard for it, but we could do this.

The first night at the camp, we squeezed into a yurt with Shannon's new friends from Flagstaff and tried to settle into a jumpy sleep.

Day 2 - Vicksburg to Twin Lakes - 13.2 miles, 3100 feet
The day started at 5:30am where I woke up five people in a yurt to the sounds of the Lion King.

At the pre-race briefing the night before, the weather was discussed. Particularly, the forecasted thunderstorm over Hope Pass. Shannon and I came up with a race plan for the day - the plan basically consisted of not getting struck by lightning and dying.

When it came time to start the long climb up switchbacks, we jogged a bit. Then power hiked. Then ultra walked. Then observed how the third place and fourth place teams were right behind us - and not just behind us, but chatting easily. To be fair, there were also several guys - teams and solos - who were also talking a suspicious amount. We told them - go ahead, pass us. No, it turned out they just wanted to check us out.

Some people, at the top of Hope Pass - with the lake spread off in the distance, with the clouds moving over huge peaks - took pictures. Some people, the year before, got engaged. Photos show people doing handstands, jumps, any type of poses. For me and Shannon - we saw the girls ahead of us, trusted our downhill legs would kick in, let out huge yells, and cut the brakes down the loose rock, down along roots and streams and switchbacks as fast as we could go.

At the beginning of the race, I started talking to a fellow running skirt-wearer. We both agreed that skirts were better than compression gear, because everything was a bit, um, free-er. As we moved downhill, I saw my friend ahead of us, skirt flapping in the breeze. I yelled: "Hey skirt buddy, how's your crotch?!" She was wearing headphones, and didn't hear me. So I yelled it again. And again once more. (Shannon: "It's fine, you can say things like that. Just don't drag me into it.")

Finally we were done the long downhill, and we rolled alongside Twin Lakes. Through trees, along a rocky shore, past abandoned houses.

The finish line had us sweating in harsh sunlight, racing into the lake to ice before the clouds passed over the sun.

We crammed five of us into a Super 8 motel room. We showered, and Shannon dried and straightened her hair until my crankiness and hunger forced us out to an awesome Leadville coffee shop in search of food (and possibly cute runners who were competing in that weekend's Leadville 100 mile race).

at 10,000 feet, you wear socks with sandals

Day 3 - Leadville to Nova Guides, 24.4 miles, 2800 feet
I woke up already feeling caffeinated, and immediately stepped on Mike, who was sleeping on the floor. The thunderstorms from the night before were gone. On the way to breakfast, we admired the now-snow-covered peaks in the distance - then realized we might well be running through snow ourselves if the weather in Colorado continued to try to kill us.

The race started right on Leadville's main street. We ran about half an hour on the side of a highway until the turn onto an uphill dirt road was a relief. The third and fourth place teams (our fellow Vancouver-ites, Tory and Katrina, and a strong team of former cross-country runners from Oregon) clicked past us on the uphill. We ran when we could, and walked most of the time. We kept up with our "run like Oprah" strategy, where we told each other good work, told each other to keep the pace reasonable, as runner after runner passed us.

As soon as we topped over the hill, the downhill legs kicked. It seemed like we went downhill forever - down a rutted jeep road, across the highway, and onto the Colorado trail, weaving through pines under a grey sky and a few raindrops. It was a long day, and all the runners were spread out. It was just me and Shannon out there, ticking off distance. We ran through open fields with thunderheads over the mountains, wound along the side of a valley, and, finally, out onto a dirt road. At the end of the road, at the far side of the valley, nestled against the mountains, was the finish line.

By this point, my lack of running base was started to show, and I was struggling. Shannon, however, had recently had caffeine. This means that, while I was panting along, running into a headwind, Shannon was singing me love songs. After a walk break on the final uphill, continuing my tradition of wimping out about 1km from the finish, we crossed the day's line holding hands.

We sat in the lake, then I had a shower and immediately fell asleep in the tent. After eating about a pound of potato chips I felt better enough to brave the foam rollers in the massage tent. One of the really fast guys joined me and showed me some foam roller "tips". Holy hell. The tips basically involved finding really painful positions and holding them until you wanted to vomit. So I did this for an hour, alternating with stretching and yoga and swearing at my quads.

evening campfire

Day 4 - Nova Guides to Red Cliff, 2800 feet, 14 miles
That night in the tent was cold - really cold. The alarm went off at 5:30am, and I stepped out to a bright moon in the lightening sky, with clouds rising out of the valley. 

The route was basically a big climb and a big downhill. About ten minutes into the run, the Oregon girls passed us. Another five minutes, and Katrina passed us (their team strategy was a bit different than ours: one would go ahead for uphills, and the other would catch up on the downhills). We were both  breathing hard, going as fast as we could, which basically translated to very slow walking.

As people continued to pass us, I started to get a bit anxious. Then Shannon announced she had to go to the bathroom, and jogged into the forest. At the same time, the other member of the Vancouver team passed us, whereby I impatiently yelled at Shannon that she had gone into the forest far enough, damnit, we had to get back there on the trail. (me, later: "I am sorry, that behaviour was unacceptable. You can go to the bathroom as much as you like.")

photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography

We crested the climb to open meadows, and slowly shuffle-ran to get closer to the two teams ahead of us. This passing sounds really dramatic, but what actually happened was that the other two teams slowed at the top so we could all be in a group selfie photo. After posing, Shannon and I trundled on. And finally, thank god, had our downhill legs. We kicked it down and down and down until we hit a section that was brutal for us last year: a couple kilometers through a creek bed. This time was different: the water was bottle green and clear and cool, with the sunlight making bright webbing on the rocks. Our footing was solid, and we were so happy. The finish had us on gentle downhill and strong legs, high-fiving other runners just before the finish.

The run finished in Red Cliff (pop. 275). To help our legs recover, we jumped in the world's coldest creek. Out of dedication to not sucking on the next day's downhill, I made it an entire 5 minutes in the water (Shannon did 10 minutes: "That's fine, you can get out of the water early and be slow tomorrow.''). I was so chilled after that my changing basically consisted of me telling the guys to look the other way and putting on dry clothes immediately after getting out of the water.

We ate nachos and guacomole in the sunshine on the third-storey floor of Mangos restaurant. The altitude killed our normal appetites, and even Shannon's desire for margaritas (Shannon only likes sweet drinks).

Returning to the camp, the weather was still a bit sunny with a stiff wind. Our run clothes finally had dried from the day before, so we hung out the day's run clothes. This is an important detail, because we were hanging out in the Nova Guides lodge as the sky darkened. A small drizzle started. We looked at the sky and decided, no, the rain will just pass. This was not the correct answer. The sky got even darker, and then there was thunder. And a rain so hard we could barely see the mountains. And then, to further reinforce that Colorado weather wanted to kill us, it started to hail. So what I am saying is that our clothes got the very opposite of dried (thank god we brought plastic bags!).

I would like to note that I was very grateful to be on the podium every night, and for the amazing prizes we received. However, I would also like to note that this was the 2nd year in a row that the Day 4 prize resembled something out of a sex catalogue.

Shannon smacked me shortly after this picture was taken

That night it was really cold, with the damp coming straight up from the ground. My memory of the night is that I wore every single piece of warm clothing I brought, and then tried to move my sleeping bag right next to Shannon's in order to generate some warmth. Shannon's recollection is somehat different: "She just kept trying to get on top of me until I was pressed right up against the side of the tent." Needless to say, neither of us slept particularly well.

Day 5 - Red Cliff to Vail, 23.2 miles, 4100 ft
To say this route started on an uphill is not entirely correct. This route was pretty much all uphill - for 2.5 hours, we climbed and climbed and climbed - back through a valley, up switchbacks through meadows on a dirt road, then through low pines on singletrack. Somewhere in the first couple hours, the two other teams passed us, and we were in fourth place. I remembered the day before, and how we dropped downhill. As the girls ahead of us got farther and farther in the distance, we just kept telling ourselves we would catch up later. And, weirdly enough for a type-A, semi-anxious, completely competitive person - I believed.

Sure enough, at the top of the first big climb, we dropped down onto a winding, rooty trail, to catch up and get into third place. We pushed, and kept pushing - as we broke out on the back side of vail, past the trees, to mountains on all side and white clouds racing across the sky. We ran slowly, and walked quickly, up the final climb to the top of Vail mountain - switchbacks through wildflowers into a stiff cold breeze.

photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography

Finally, we got to the final long downhill, and caught sight of the Oregon team. We kicked, kicked hard, and kept going, down the 1kms of singletrack, through forests and across fields, until we finally got to Vail.

We arrived right in the village, hot and sticky and dusty, and plunged into the creek.

The campsite looked like a postcard from a vacation too good to be true. Our wet clothing dried in the stiff wind and hard sunlight. People lounged on the grass, rolled out on yoga mats, got ready for one last day.

Day 6 - Vail to Beaver Creek, 22 miles, 4300ft
And then it was 5:30am, and I was up before my alarm. The sky was cloudless and pale purple. One last time we packed our gear, laced up our shoes, filled up our water.

We went out, and we went out hard - as did the 3rd and 4th place team. We jogged more than we ran up switchbacks , until Vail was once again tiny and we entered a forest of Aspen trees - bone white and straight. At the top of the first climb, we were ahead - not by much, and we were working hard, but it was enough. Down one long climb, just the two of us, alone, through a field of nettles, descending on the edge of a narrow valley.

After 5 days, after 170kms and almost 20,000 feet and too many gels to count - we were on the final climb to Beaver Creek.

A year ago, we had done the same climb - the same burn in the legs, late-summer heat, weaving yellow grass and roasting pine needles. Later that year, in December, I showed up and Shannon's apartment and cried until I shook, cried because it felt that my world was ending. Later still, in February, Shannon struggled to race a half-marathon while I cheered her on in a boot. Later still, she stopped hard workouts, then stopped even easy running for a while.

At that moment - jogging when we could, walking the rest - we were back, as if we had never left. We were moving - had been moving the whole time, since the day we finished the race in 2013. 

Later, that day, we would cross the finish line, holding hands, and hug. We would gratefully respond to the texts and messages of our run community cheering us on back home, in Vancouver, and the rest of our trail friends. We would shower for a long, long time, put on makeup, put on a dress, drink too much and laugh until we were exhausted.

But that one last climb, I kept moving past the thoughts of the people back home, past my apartment, full of light and waiting for me, past my new job, past the ocean and the sunsets and the life I had settled into. I kept moving past pain, and past regret, and past love and sadness and it was just me and Shannon, together in the mountains under the wide blue sky.

Thank yous

FITS Socks
My feet were comfortable and blister free through heat and hail and way too many stream crossings. I wore the same pair of socks for 4 days straight and it didn't even smell bad. During the nights at below freezing, my feet were the only warm part of me.

Also - as a company, FITS stood by me when I was injured for months, and didn't race for over half a year.

My amazing partner
Who planned her Day 6 banquet outfit well in advance, who wrote her final undergrad exam at 5:30am on our first day, who laughed and toughed out the uphills and sang to me on the flats. I didn;t know what my body would do on this run, but I knew that being part of our team made my head and my heart strong enough to make it through day after day in the Rockies, and I am so grateful for our friendship.

The best friends and community
To Lucy, who went with me on the first stiff trail runs to Norvan falls, and who jogged slowly next to me as I walked the downhills. Who had me over for countless dinners, tried to teach me how to knit celebrated each 10 minute baby-run with me. Who did her own amazing first marathon this year, and taught me how to celebrate the process, do as much as a body can, and love the rest of my life while I'm at it.

To Craig, who biked from North Vancouver to downtown at 5:30am during busy season to meet me to swim in the tiny pool at the Y. Who stopped asking me how my runs were, and started asking how my swims were when injured, and kept me feeling like an athlete.

To Barry, who trusted me enough to let me pace him in San Diego and finally get a taste of what running in a beautiful place is like.

To the VFAC and trail community - to Nic, who convinced me on my taper it was better to be fast than it was to be skinny. To Brian and April, who swam with me on dreamy evenings at second beach and learned to belay, and played game after game of hearts in the sunshine with too much wine - who helped teach me that there is more to life than running, and helped me to have one of the best summers of my life. To Katie, who went around False Creek with me, as we have early mornings for the past three years, where every run and conversation, if it's days or weeks or months apart, feels like coming home. To Andrea, who joined me for yoga and drinks and made me the best racing tutu ever. To Anthony, who paced me and pushed my very cranky self up the grind in the early mornings. To Ramsey, who answered so many phone calls or texts with me in tears, who gave me hope and positivity and the strength to believe I'd get better. To Allison, who picked me up at 6am in West Vancouver to drag me to yoga. To James, who has been running begrudgingly for over five years, who provides the best sarcasm and "British encouragement" out there (sample quotes: "Is that your maybe meeting some boys face? You may be aiming too high." or "After being shamed on FB I just did 10km in the baking heat. Now have blisters between my toes. I think I need your special socks.") To Seth and Lauren, for coming out after almost-pacing Leadville to visit with us, to show me that you can meet someone for an hour a year ago and it turns into a great friendship.

To everyone who sent us e-mails or texts or wished us luck or ran with us - not caring if we placed first or tenth, but wanting us to be happy and healthy - I am so lucky to be part of this amazing community.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Full Circle

It's started to get sunny in Vancouver and it feels like I am living in a different city: sunrise through leaves, sunset over the second beach pool, growing shadows on the way home. I wake up many mornings, these days, before my alarm clock - excited to get onto the seawall, onto the grouse grind, to yoga class. I am sweaty and not-very-fast and still finding my trail legs. I also feel like I am coming back home into my body. I feel like I am coming back home into myself.

It's hard to write about the last year. I feel, sometimes, like I was a hurricane in my own life. A high-school teacher once told my mom: "She's going to learn everything, but she's going to learn it the hard way." And I learned. I learned about loss: the weight on my chest, the way my world seemed to shrink, that blank emptiness ahead. And I learned, too, about movement: about breath, about going forwards no matter how hard, about making space. And the more I learned, I realized that life can be about finding movement within loss, the ability to find the strength to go forward, the hope that each step will be that much easier.

Training can be about building momentum: 10 minute runs become one hour runs, thirty kilometer weeks become one hundred kilometer weeks, five minutes of stretching becomes a session of hot yoga.

Loss also has its own momentum.

I starting losing, small things at first. Then the losses became bigger. The more I tried to fight them, the faster they came: I lost some friends, my writing, my marriage. My world was small, whittled down to dark December mornings, grey snow, and the fight to get out of bed.

And within that space, I started to move.

Every morning I was able to get out of bed because I knew I would be meeting my very amazing friends for a run. We ran in the dark, in the rain, through fresh snow. That early morning movement made the rest of the day easier - as every runner knows, once you get going all you have to do is keep going.

Hours turned into days turned into weeks. Mornings were better, the momentum a bit easier to obtain. I lost the life I had in a beautiful apartment right on the water. I moved in first with my brother and his girlfriend, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in their spare bedroom and bonding with their two dogs. I then moved in with Lucy, sharing the basement and a small bathroom with her very understanding stepdaughter. I lost my wardrobe and lived out of suitcases for two months.

Starting in mid-December, I knew something wasn't quite right with my ankle. By mid-January, I stopped running. I lost three months in a boot and with rehab, lost race entry after race entry, lost a big part of my connection to the community I loved.

By then I had gotten so very good at losing. Here's the thing about hurricanes: after the shock and the sadness and grieving, there is either emptiness or space. It's time to look around - to survey the loss, and to see what remains, and start to rebuild.

It started so, so small. Five minutes of meditation. Forty-five minutes on an exercise bike. 2000m in the pool. Cooking dinner. A new client at work. Dancing around in Lucy's living room to Fitz and the Tantrums.

I went to see Ramsey, went to see doctors. I got an X-Ray, then a bone scan, and a boot. I lost the ability to wear normal shoes for a month, lost the activities that seemed familiar. I kept moving, some days easy, some days hard, into this new space.

The more I kept going, the farther away I went from what my life used to look like. And I learned - the farther I went, the more I seemed to circle back. I reconnected with old, close friends. I found my writing again, my love of music. I moved into an old apartment, and slowly put piles and piles of books onto a bookshelf. I watched the tree outside my window get covered with snow, streaked with rain, watched the first reluctant buds, and now the glow of sunset behind the thick leaves.

I lost, and I kept losing - the doubt, the anger, the disappointment. I never quite knew where I was going, but I started showing up in places that were strange and occasionally very lovely. Some days found me listening to the first strains of Bastille at a sold out concert, others had me reluctantly sweating on a spin bike, and there were still times where I was curled up in bed, crying so hard I thought my neighbours would surely hear. Loss, I told myself, makes space.

I found myself away from week-in, week-out of hard training, and in a softer world. I started to fill the space. Hard Tuesday tempos gave way to evenings rock climbing. Weekends away to run trails became hour after hour of playing cards in the warm afternoon sunlight. The feelings of missing out, of never quite being fast enough or training hard enough were replaced by a sheer dizzy fangirl gratitude of getting out somewhere beautiful and sweating. Whatever I could do that day - 5k, 10k, 30k - was enough, more than enough.

As I kept going, I went to places that were both strange and familiar. I walked to empty beaches, through a dry rainforest filled with crabs. I counting lengths at second beach pool to a background of ocean and evergreens. I waded into a hard grey Pacific in Del Mar, after pacing Barry for his 100-mile run. A month later, I went into a wilder Pacific in Tofino, after my first 30km run, slipping on seaweed and screaming with each cold wave.

It's weird for me to say I'm coming back. I don't know if there is any back to go to. There are places and people in my life that have been there for the long eight years I've been in Vancouver, that feel like home: running and catching up on life with Lucy, arguing about bikes and leg-shaving etiquette with Craig, dreamy evenings at second beach pool, swatting away mosquitos while waiting for the Thursday night VFAC workout to start in the Stanley park trails, and, of course, every step along the seawall. I've returned to these places, seen these people, so many times.

I'm not the same 21 year old who moved to Vancouver and knew barely anyone, and ran the seawall in the heat of a summer eight years ago - but I still carry around the memory of loneliness in a new city, and the gratitude for the amazing running community I am a part of. I'm not the same person who ran a 1:24 half marathon on tired legs a year ago - but I still remember the feeling of strength, the ability to trust in my body and feel speed in my bones. I'm not the same sad person that I was six months ago - but I still have the memory of the weight of loss, right on my chest, and it reminds me to be gentle with myself and others. And I'm not the person who ran for hours and hours in the mountains every weekend - but I remember how it feels to look onto glaciers, to see the edge of the sun through the final treeline, to sing on the downhills with friends, and to run with joy.

And in some way, each and every run is a form of coming home - the sweat, the rhythm, the rain or sunrise or sunset. And it's so easy to come back to the breath, always the breath, to centre, to tell myself to breathe, breathe again, trust my body, and keep going.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Barry does a 100-mile race (San Diego 100 - take two)

A year ago, I traveled to San Diego with Barry to pace him for his first 100-mile race. The day of the race was hot - really hot, record-breaking hot - and Barry ended up dropping out at mile 51. I never got to pace Barry that year. Instead, I paced Ken, a ten-times Western States finisher, for 20 miles of the course, while Barry volunteered and helped out at various aid stations.

A year is a long time
I think Barry's training for this year's San Diego 100 miler started about an hour after he handed in his bib at the 2013 race - where, instead of returning to the hotel to rest, he volunteered. He was sad, I assume, and understandably disappointed. And, despite this, he kept going. He did three 50 mile races in about a month that summer. In the fall, he won the Canadian 50-mile championships.

Things felt unfinished last year - I always wanted to help Barry give the race one more shot. This desire hit a speedbump in February, when I finally got a stress fracture diagnosis for my ankle and put on an aircast. While Barry was putting in week after week of high mileage, I was swimming laps. My cast came off, and I started to run - 10 minutes, half an hour, an hour. There were good days, and there were frustrating setbacks, which ended in me, on Ramsey's table, with needles sticking out of my left calf.

About a month before the race, it looked like pacing might be an actual possibility. However, there was no way my ankle could handle running 50km straight. Enter pacer #2.

Team Barry
I met Seth, briefly, at the Transrockies Race back in August 2013, while trying to eat my body weight in nutella (I achieved this goal - seriously, who the hell gains a pound after running 120miles?...I do). We sporadically kept in touch, bonding over our shared love of cats. Seth lives in San Diego, and likes surfing, ironman triathlons, biking, snowboarding, and pop tarts as a performance food group.

When he heard about the race, he generously offered to help pace Barry. The plan was for Seth and I to alternate legs of the course for the last 29-odd miles - giving my ankle time to recover and dealing with my still-limited fitness. I ran the idea by Ramsey six days before the race, booked my ticket to Los Angeles Monday, got "Team Barry" t-shirts made on Tuesday, and, after many months of neglect, found myself packing my trail backpack and water bladder, along with trail shoes and my FITS socks, on Thursday night.

The fourth, and most important (okay, besides the actual runner) member of Team Barry was Amber, Barry's girlfriend. Amber is Australian, and has an actual life outside of running - enjoying hobbies such as drinking, sarcasm, reading, art, and orthopedic nursing. Amber was the crew: responsible for driving from aid station to aid station, attempting to get Barry to eat / drink, providing changes of clothes, headlamps, painkillers, and, above all, moral support.


We flew out of Vancouver to Los Angeles early Friday morning. From Los Angeles, we drove out to the tiny town of Julien, an hour or so inland of San Diego. We had done this drive, or very similar, a year before. Last year, where it had been overcast, there was now a hazy sunshine. The traffic that we had to grind through on the I-5 was gone, replaced with a view of distant ocean past dry fields. We took a different route inland, but the fading away of the Los Angeles / San Diego sprawl was the same. We went from strip malls to half-finished developments to valleys of orange trees surrounded by dusty low mountains.

We went over the race plan as the car wove along the mountainside.

Amber: "What are you doing tomorrow?"
Barry: "Running."
Amber: What else are you doing tomorrow?"
Barry: "Running".

The town of Julien was the type of town that actually had a main street. Actually, the entire town was along the main street. We arrived in the afternoon to the scent of roasting pine needles and a fading blue sky. After dropping off our bags at the rental cabin, we headed over to Lake Cuyamaca for the pre-race briefing.

Familiar faces
Amber begrudgingly agreed to wear the "Team Barry" tank top to the pre-race briefing (I saved mine from last year, so we matched!).

Last year, we met Ken (who ran the 100-mile race), his wife Carola (who provided very stern crew support and tough love), and his pacer, Bill.

As we were checking in this year, I heard my name called several times - there, handing out t-shirts, was Bill, Ken and Carola! Ken was running the race again, after an excellent sub-24hr finish last year. Bill had signed up to race (and had completed the Western States 100 last year), but a challenging year had meant that he didn't get enough time training, and instead was planning to once again pace Ken.

Carola made sure that Amber knew what wife/crew duties meant: "So you don't let him whine, right? Remind him who signed up for the race?"

We are no longer in Canada
Compared to the previous year's record-breaking temperatures, this year would be better. However, "better", for Southern California, was still around 85F during the day. Seth, the race director, fellow racers - everyone kept commenting how great it would be to have "cool" weather. No. "Cool" weather is 10C and a drizzle. Cool weather means huddling together for warmth before the race start. Temperatures higher than we Vancouver-ites get except on the five nice summer days do not qualify as "cool", they qualify as taking one hour longer for the inevitable heat-stroke to set it.

Getting ready
The three of us finished two bottles of pre-race wine (criteria: screw top, witty name) on the tiny patio outside, and then started preparations for the next day: Barry packed, checked, and re-checked his drop bags. Amber went over the aid stations and the driving instructions. I sipped wine out of a mug and read an excellent fantasy book on the patio outside.

Sometime during the night, Barry started to snore. Instead of waking him up to stop, I was happy that he was having a pre-race sleep deep enough to produce those very loud sounds, and put a pillow over my head. Next thing, I was woken up by Amber telling me that we would be leaving in 15 minutes for the start line.

race start, pre-sunrise

We arrived at 4:30am, to the brightening line over the horizon. 220 runners in Hokas or trail shoes or Skechers road runners (in Barry's case), compression socks, tiny shorts, not-tiny shorts, mini-gaiters, compression gear, shiny shorts, and skirts - some relaxed, doing their 10th or 20th 100-miler, and some pacing nervously (that would be our runner).

I've had coffee and am very excited for Barry to run.
At 5 minutes to 6am, the final pre-race briefing was given, the gun went off, and Barry started running.

Amber and I went back to the cabin and napped for several hours. I woke up to texts from Seth, telling me Barry was currently in 11th place, and running well ahead of 20hr pace (to make the most of the cool morning temperatures). We showered, and hurried to the Sunrise 1 aid station at mile 23. Barry arrived, drank some coke and ate a piece of melon (pretty much most of the solid food he would eat all day), and was out.

After apparently taking some unflattering pictures of me, Amber drove us over to Pioneer mail at mile 30, the next aid station. There, we ran into the same Big-Four partner (also known as the wife of Neil, who was racing the 100-miler and came 4th overall last year) that I met in 2013. This time, she had brought her teenage daughter to help her in the crewing duties. The two of them were a tough crowd.

contemplating the Carbo-Pro

"Neil" - the teenage daughter called her dad by his first name - "looked awful this morning, and his head wasn't in the game." The mother agreed: "He needs to get it together, I hate getting stuck at these things after midnight."

Neil, visibly suffering, ended up coming in just before Barry - but after the first place female. The wife was unimpressed: "If he gets chicked at these things, he might as well give up - I'll tell him that at the next aid station." The two family / crew members then got into a detailed discussion of how Neil's pacer would give him further verbal "encouragement" to get Neil to "just suck it up and go fast again."

As Barry was looking a bit warm, Amber's and my crewing strategy was a bit different - tell Barry he was doing great (he was!), make sure he stayed at the aid station long enough to cool down, and remind him to go as slow as he needed to be sure he finished.

a little warmer and a lot less impressed with this running business

Having sent Barry out with at least some extra calories, Amber and I were pretty tired from this whole crewing thing, and went back to the town for lunch.

We kept checking the results online, and worried a bit about Barry in the heat. To improve morale, we bought some cheese (Barry's favourite food), in hopes of feeding it to him during the nighttime section.

In early afternoon, we returned to the Red Tail Roost aid station at 44 miles. And waited. And waited some more. Barry came in after running several hard hours in the heat of the day, looking like he was not particularly having fun. This worried us a bit, and I decided to jump in with him for a 5.5mile leg at the next aid station.

the face of someone who doesn't want to eat solid foods 
Friend and fellow pacer, Bill, came to visit us at the next aid station. After ending a relationship, he had gone hunting in Alaska. Taking Amber's lack of replies for enthusiasm, he showed pictures of him next to a bear he had shot (Frank - he had given it a name), a moose he had shot (Clive), and a large halibut (name unknown). These animals were currently in various states of storage in Ken's freezer.

Amber enduring the matching tank tops

A note about fuelling
There are different fuelling strategies, all depending on the person. As Barry completed his race, I consider his fuelling strategy to be the right one. However, it was also the one that worried the hell out of me and Amber. In 26.5 hours, he consumed exactly 1/2 a Cliff Bar as solid food - the rest was Carbo-Pro and flat coke (and some ginger ale). The water melon he attempted to eat doesn't count, as this was mostly all thrown back up. So I can tell you, yes, it is possible to complete a 100-mile race without solid foods, if you don't mind completely freaking out your crew / pacers.

So basically every aid station was trying (and failing) to convince a stubborn British guy to eat solid food, and instead re-filling his water bottles and handing him as many cups of flat coke as he could stomach.

Early leg
Barry looked like death arriving at the 51.1 miles - hot and dusty. We put ice in his hat, got him sponged down (they actually have volunteers who do this), and, amazingly, after 10 minutes he looked like a different person.

let's go!

A year and a half after I first decided to pace Barry, a year after he dropped at the 51.1 mile aid station, I was finally laced up and ready to go. And then - as the shadows were starting to lengthen, as the first cool breezes came - we started to walk, together, out of the aid station.

The trail rolled gently through pine trees, with views over the dry hills. We went through wide meadows of grass, and then up again through trees. The trails were dusty and filled with rocks. After the first walking, Barry picked up the pace. Running that late-afternoon leg with him - talking about VFAC and relationships and life to the hum of cicadas - is one of my most lovely running moments.

We got into the aid station, expecting to see Amber with a change of clothing and a headlamp for night running. Instead, it turned out a last-minute decision had removed crew access. Barry was understandably alarmed, and facing down the prospect of running for 4-5 hours without light. Luckily, Bill was at the aid station and had an extra headlamp for Barry to use. With that, he was off again.

Pacer #2 and evening waiting around
Poor Seth. I had told him to meet us at the start / finish line at 7pm, to potentially start pacing at 8pm. He made the mistake of asking us if we needed anything, as he could pick it up. And, oh boy, we definitely needed things (none of it at all directly related to Barry's running): we needed scissors (to cut ribbons on birthday balloons), nutella (I believe pacer calories don't actually count), and Red Bull (this should be self-explanatory). After doing his own bike workout that morning, he headed out to meet us, and even arrived an hour early.

We parked back at Pioneer Mail aid station, at 72 miles, to wait for Barry to emerge from a long climb up the canyon. Seth had brought nutella, and a loaf of french bread (and, somehow, he had gone through life until now without nutella - how is this possible?!). We tore off chunks of bread and watched as the first stars appeared. Over on the ridge, we could see the far-off headlamps of runners.

dinner of champions
Team Barry bonding

Bill came to join us, and showed Seth the pictures of the animals he had shot. Instead of our polite replies, Seth launched into an enthusiastic discussion on things concerning triggers and distance and other gun related topics for about ten minutes. During this discussion, I also learned that you can, in fact, shoot a halibut. This, along with the large pick-up truck he had driven out to the race start, reinforced to Amber and myself that we were definitely in America.

watching headlamps

Seth had never met Barry before. And, as time stretched on and Amber and I (ok, mostly me) grew more anxious about Barry running, alone, at night, he also didn't fully know about Barry's reputation for getting lost. As we waited, we tried to determine what Barry and Seth had in common. Beer? Seth doesn't drink. Cats? Barry is not a fan (to put it gently). Running? Both Amber and Seth agreed it was kind of boring.

It turned out, though, that as a 15+ time Ironman athlete, Seth has had a lot of experience throwing up. Barry was quickly getting a lot of experience throwing up as the race progressed. And this was how pretty much the first conversation between Barry and Seth involved Barry finally taking a salt tablet (something which Amber and I were completely unsuccessful at getting him to do).

Seth and Barry set out from the 72-mile aid station, and, at that point, I had complete certainty that Barry was going to finish this thing. To celebrate, Amber and I drove to the next aid station, where I napped for 1.5 hours.

When Seth and Barry arrived, it was past midnight - and it was Barry's 39th birthday. Amber greeted him with balloons and a banner that read something like: "Wow you're really old!". All told, 39 was off to a somewhat painful and Carbo-Pro filled start. After Barry's usual refusal to eat any solid foods (exhibited by attempting to eat watermelon and throwing up), I strapped on my headlamp and we headed out into the night.

Amber is awesome

The sky was clear. There was a half moon and the stars were so near and bright. I wore a t-shirt, and was never cold. Occasionally, we would have waves of warm air rush at us from the canyons, and waves of cool air come down from the mountains. We kept moving - walking, running some downhills. We talked, a bit, and then we didn't talk.

I've known Barry for two and a half years, and he is a great friend. Maybe we are not conventional friends - we don't do many dinners, never watched a movie together, and our discussions frequently involve blisters and But he is the friend where 2am finds us walking side by side down a rough dirt road, with stars pressing up ahead against one faint black line of horizon.

The last part of that leg had us running on rooty trails on the edge of an island, in the middle of a lake, in the desert. The trail was marked not only by ribbons, but by softly glowing lanterns, reflecting on the water.

4:45am had us arriving to a pirate-themed aid station. The first glow of sunrise was just about to start . Amber greeted Barry with balloons and a kiss. To one side, crew members in full bunny suits were standing (Seth: "when else do you get the opportunity to wear a bunny suit?"). It was all a bit surreal, and made all the more beautiful for it.

Morning, again
Amber drove us to the last aid station at 94miles. I was wiped. There was so much stuff thrown into the car that I couldn't find all my warm clothes, so I settled with Seth's sweatshirt. I re-arranged the balloons in the back of the car, and started my final nap.

this is what mile 94 looks like

I woke up an hour later, shaking a bit - maybe the sleep deprivation, maybe the Red Bulls, maybe the excitement at being able to pace Barry for the final leg.

Barry arrived about an hour after sunrise. He quickly filled up his water bottles one last time, and then, we were ready to go.

It was already getting warm out, and we walked uphill through part of the course that had a forest fire the year before - black trunks, grey crags, and the low greenery starting to come back. We walked up, and up some more, as I steadily lied to Barry about the top of the hill being just ahead. And, finally, it was the top.

taking pictures at 98 miles in isn't always welcome

Home stretch
Then it was the two of us, together, on a dirt road surrounded by yellow grass, with trees in the distance. It was already very hot out, and I could smell the baking dirt. The cicadas hummed so loudly it was like they would explode.

I don't know what Barry was thinking those last few miles - maybe he was just hot, or thirsty, or had to pee, or was too tired for thought and only had that shot-through sunlight, the faded blue sky, the hours and hours of one foot in front of the other. I know, for me, I thought back to the year before, to when Barry dropped. To how he got up the next day, and got on with it. To the bravery it takes to face something down, to fail, and to come back again - maybe faster, maybe not faster - but smarter, and humbler, and in every way that he stayed positive, that he kept going in the heat and the night and into the next day, so much stronger.

And about a mile from the end is where I started to cry. I don't think I will ever do a 100-mile race, and on paper nothing about it seems sane: the amount of time, the heat, running in hours of darkness, the vomiting, the blisters and so much pain. And it might not be sane, but watching Barry run that race taught me so much.

I saw him kiss Amber at every aid station. I saw him in pain, feeling nauseous, feeling tired - and I saw him get up, quietly, and continue on - at 4pm and 4am, in the heat, by himself. I saw him laugh and I saw him joke and I saw how he just kept moving, kept going.

I'm not always an optimistic person, and I'm not always a hopeful person. But - seeing this race - it makes it so easy to believe. 26 hours and 35 minutes taught me about the huge power of one persistent step after the other. It taught me about love. It taught me about the pull and comfort of a community - both the California running community, and all of our friends back home, cheering. And, oh god, it taught me to believe in second chances.

view from the finish of us running in

And then we could see the finish line, and hear Amber yelling out "BARRY!". So we held hands, and ran the last bit next to the lake, up a small hill, and, finally, across the finish.

Final thoughts and thank-yous:

We did not get lost
Barry and I have a pretty well-earned reputation for getting lost and rolling our ankles. Neither of us are great with maps, and we tend to do some "bonus miles" on many occasions when we run together. I feel quite smug that, even at night, even after doing over 26 hours of running, we did not take even one wrong turn.

Our run community is amazing
There were so many texts, e-mails, and facebook messages from all of our running (and non-running) friends in Vancouver. It felt amazing to have so much support from so far away - thank you everyone! It was also really lucky to have the support from Bill, Carola, and Ken (who finished just minutes behind Barry).

Our feet are not wrecked
We both wore the FITS performance trail socks, and Barry's feet were quite possibly the least bad-smelling part of him.

Team Barry
A huge, huge thank you to Amber - not only the best girlfriend ever, but also a complete blast to hang out with (even suffering through the embarrassment of wearing the "Team Barry" t-shirt). Amber was pretty much the reason, in my opinion, Barry got sufficient calories and moral support to finish the thing. Additionally, I very much enjoyed Amber's quick  sense of humour. Even after 27 hours of running, she was able to make sarcastic comments (while I was barely able to put together complete sentences).

A big thank you to Seth, for making his pacing debut in the middle of the night with a bunch of Canadians. Seth was positive, laid-back, and not at all offended when Amber's impression of his voice made him sound like Cartman. He was able to get Barry through many tough sections at night (going on a narrow ridge, running next to potentially angry wasps).  I know Seth will do an amazing job pacing his friend at the Leadville 100! Also thank you (and the awesome Lauren) for letting me sleep on your couch and harass your cat.

Last - thank you to Barry! You stayed positive for 100.2 hard-fought miles. Your strength of character in returning to the race is a huge inspiration. Besides apologizing ten times at every aid station (this could just be part of being British), you stayed focused and tough and I had complete faith you would finish it. I think it's easy to succeed, but the year before, you failed with complete grace, and it makes your race this year all the more impressive. So glad to be your friend and to be with you for this amazing moment!