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.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A Bunion, an accidental death metal concert, and returning to running

I remember being so damn happy when my physio gave me the go-head to run again. I remember waking up early, doing 35minutes of the most painful foam roller ever, doing my exercises, and heading to the gym in the dark. I got on the treadmill, and walked for a minute. Then, finally, after over four months of no running, I increased the speed to 8 miles an hour and ran. For a full minute. I got to repeat the run/walk 5 times. Afterwards, I was winded.

So it's been a long 2.5 months. From there, I went up to 7 minutes total running, 10 minutes total running, started to run together 2, and then 3 minutes at a time. 15 minutes of total running was a cause for celebration - that didn't happen until April. It wasn't a smooth build. Along the way, even the tiny amount of running I did, when combined with a hard grind, was enough to send the new muscles I was finally learning to use into spasm. I got so sick of the gym that some weeks all I did was yoga, my 2 or 3 allowed runs, and weekend hikes.

The thing is - I could feel things changing. So I kept rolling out the new and painful body parts my physio identified and wasn't reckless...more or less. My sports doctor gave me his blessing to start building, sensibly - suggesting things like run/hiking trails. Like Sea to Summit, for example. Which was good he mentioned it - because I did it the weekend before. And I'd also done the run up / do grind / run down workout that was suggested.

The Bunion
The evening before I got the okay to start running, I did a fast grind. Then, after showering, I put my very dirty running shoes on without socks. The next day, I woke up with an aching outside of foot next to my little toe. The next run I did, wedged into my narrow-fit shoes, the outside hurt. Everything else felt great. I watched with interest, then mild concern, as the small bump on the outside of my foot grew larger and more painful each day. I tried ice. I tried advil. I tried wider shoes and excessive googling. None really seemed to help. I emailed my foot dr and physio pictures of what ended up being a huge ass infected bunion. (It's actually a bunionette - which sounds more dainty and feminine but is actually not at all either of those things. I'm not putting links in because really this is something you don't want to google to see pics of, ever).

However, since running itself in wider shoes was pain free (provided the gross bunion from hell didn't touch anything) - I kept at it. Friday evening had me doing 40min to an English Bay sunset. Saturday had me up early to fasthike up to Garibaldi Lake (complete with way too much extra clothing and unnecessary snowshoes - do not let a semi-neurotic redhead decide on a gear list) and run/walk the downhill. And then Saturday night had me at a concert where I finally got diagnosed.

As a sidenote; it's been a long, long few months. Being able to crank uphill to the early light through the trees, eat sandwiches at a picnic table next to the brilliant sun on snow, then feel the strength in my legs as I dropped over roots, over rocks, and let the speed come to the smell of pine needles and the heat rushing up in warm waves - it was worth the patience, all of it.

signature Alex thumb picture

outdoors is heaven

Death Metal
Saturday night found me in sandals (no other nice shoes fit by that point), meeting up with friends to attend something called "Taco Fest". I was semi-distracted by work that week, and I'm not always gret at doing any due diligence at the best of times before saying yes. I thought it would be lots of tacos (who doesn't love tacos!) with live music in the corner. No.

The first clue was arriving at the location to be greeted by a bunch of people in the smoke pit out front. I think most were already pretty drunk. It was 8pm. The second clue may have been that we were the only people not wearing leather / fishnets / studs (we were wearing, amongst us: a men's lululemon top, white tank top with a lace shirt over top, a tight dress with stiletto heels, a sundress, and ripped jeans - okay those may have been appropriate). The third clue was when a band called "Satan's Cape' took to the stage. We are not hardcore people. We are people who like our baked goods, discussions of Strava, and Taylor Swift. So when the drummer on stage took off his shirt, and when the two large men with beards nodded rhythmically while yelling "Fuck!", we realized we may have been slightly out of our element. At intervals, loud, large men would throw up their hands and yell 'TACOOOOO!". Actually, Nic also did this.

We are very excited to return to this event next year and bring more friends.

After about two hours, several tacos, and one drink apiece, we decided to leave. To make light conversation, I started complaining about my bunion. Nic's girlfriend is studying to be a nurse, so she whipped out her iPhone flashlight and took a look. And yes, it was not a sesamoid fracture or a huge spur - it just need antibiotics and lancing ("I wish I could lance it myself - it's so satisfying!". Nurses are intense).

Armed with that diagnosis, a prescription for antibiotics, and one somewhat interesting lancing experience, I am on the road to recovery...really, the same road I've been on since last October. I don't know if I'll ever leave the damn road.

This isn't the same body I had a year ago - the one that got injured, never really recovered, and then got even more broken.  And, really, this isn't the same head, either. You love what you love, and when you love something enough, you are willing to pay the price of admission. My price of admission is a year and a half of never quite being right: the easy speed, being able to go, and not worry, and keep on going, the trust in my body. I don't believe people ever come back, really. I don't believe that's a bad thing. I may always need to be more careful. I may stay slightly curvier, and never be as fast as when I was 28, and also may never be as sleepless and sad and so damn anxious and running with times I never knew were possible, and they still weren't enough, not nearly enough, I was only as good as my last race and there was always someone better,

I don't think it'll ever be perfect, either. There will always be the bunions, the aches and pains, the days off and maybe weeks off. And because I love what I love - I will take the weeks so they don't become months. I will take running most days over that sharp, edgy speed. And I will love what I do, because I spent the last seven months fighting for it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Long Game

A few weeks ago, I was doing a relaxed hike with my best friend. She had had a tough start to the year - really tough, family illness tough, possibly being evicted by nuns tough. She reflected: "If I had the opportunity to know how hard this was going to be, I wouldn't have wanted to know." It was her first hike back after a month. The next week, we did the same hike a bit faster. The week after, she was back running.

Her question stayed with me - sometimes, life gets tough. Is it better to know what's coming - does it make a difference in how you can deal with it?

So, because in the end, I write about running, about not running, about wanting to run again - after over four months of grinds (the Grouse kind, not the really fun kind), of rowing and ellipticals and stationary bikes and hot yoga and varying degrees of death hikes, of stretches and foam rollers and oh god way too many needles - I finally did my first walk/run. 

And I can talk about being an injured runner - the new snugness of my jeans, occasionally waking up at 2am wondering if I would ever be able to tap into the effortless speed again, the empty Sunday mornings. But, really, being injured is as much as part of being a runner as the running itself. There are many other, much faster runners who have suffered much more serious injuries, and written about these in a much more eloquent way.

Instead, I'll write about hiking Mt. McFarlane.

The weather out here was surreal: bare trees, muddy patches with smushed grass, blue skies and a snowline that thinks it's already June. I'd hiked Sea to Summit three weekends in a row, already hiked every damn trail around Grouse. So I told my hiking partner (former, and hopefully soon-to-be-again my long run partner) that I wanted to do something long, hard, and reckless.

That's how 8am found us over on the edge of Chilliwack, in a parking lot that was half puddle, with one other car parked. I had woken up in a deep mist, put on my headlights, then highbeams on the drive out, and finally broke into the Fraser Valley as the sun hit the tops of the mountains. We zipped through the low-rise sprawl before taking a final route on the side of a river ("What do people do for work out here, anyways?" "Meth.") I used the one bar of reception on my phone to send out the safety notification to my girlfriends, then set off down the trail to the clink of my loaned ice axe against the buckle on my pack.

I like going to beautiful places, empty places, places where I feel small and a bit scared and outside of myself. It's easy to see gorgeous views from cars, from quick walks across a parking lot, from behind a fence. And it's all outside, and all gorgeous. But for me, I want to wait until I'm a couple hours deep into a hike; that shot-through feeling in my legs, the catch of breath, the clear exhale.

 I can describe the hike, and it will sound every other hike out here. We have trails cluttered up along the North Shore, stretching out past Squamish, past Whistler, getting higher and colder and wilder. All the dirt road approaches, the creek crossings on slippery logs with falling off pieces of metal, the faded pink and orange marker tape. In every hike, there is the dark, low forest, the glint of sunlight through trees, breaking out onto a rocky view, and every direction, if you do it right, mountains forever, covered in snow.

And I'm not even great at writing details - distance and turns and landmarks go blurry. I remember the roots I stumbled over, the trees I grabbed, how the air hummed and got colder as we approached a stream. I remember how steep the trail was, the ice on the rocks when we cut across small boulder fields. We didn't talk, really, the first two hours.

Here are some details, though, that may help. The hike to the top of the mountain is 21km and 1,500m elevation gain round-trip. Every single report describes the hike as "really steep". These reports, actually, are not being melodramatic. Before the summit, there are two lakes. The first lake is 16km and 1,350m round trip. The second one is up over a ridge, close to the summit. I can give details on the first, as we made it there, but not about the second lake or the summit, as we didn't make it.

the first lake

the second lake is over here

I can give details on snow. As in, it was icy and pot-holed on a steeply sloped trail and we hit it just after the first lake. I can give more details on the ridge, above which the second lake was hiding; it was purple-grey in the morning light, streaked by snow. I can give details on the summit, poking out on the side, that we glimpsed from our way up: so much snow, the impossible glint against the blue sky, and how scary and beautiful it looked.

Before the climb up the ridge to the second lake, the trees disappear and the trail flattens out. The sun had just started to come over the side of the mountain. Stopping on the snow to layer up, after the climb, I couldn't put on layers and eat something fast enough. I slipped over snow as we crossed and re-crossed the creek, looking up towards the ridge. The route to the top was straight ahead, climbing over what looked like the remnants of an avalanche. (It was the remnants of an avalanche.)

Our lack of winter meant that, yes, we were going up an avalanche chute - but there was no more snow overhead to come down. So I put a very cold ice axe in my very cold hands (yes, I had gloves, but my body sometimes forgets how to warm itself) and started going. Step, step, jab the axe into snow - repeat as we crossed the snow, into the forest smelling of pine needles, back onto the hard snow. 

The ridge was close ahead - but not that close. We had moved back into the shade, and I couldn't go fast enough uphill to get warm. I'm not very rugged to begin with, and my axe wasn't going very deep into the snow. My hands kept getting colder. Up ahead, the snow got steeper.

Maybe it was me being four months out of injury, the last of a tough week, or because the other side of the freedom that I love sometimes a loneliness that gets closer when it's nothing between me and sky - no apartment, neigbours, books, tree-lined streets. Or maybe it was being up somewhere high and strange and a bit dangerous. Maybe because what I needed was a couple hours of hard hiking to shake things loose. What happened was that I started to cry and couldn't stop.

I told my hiking partner that this was an excellent point for me to turn around, and he should keep going (As a side note, for guys, you can not legitimately say you have a female running partner until she has lost her shit out on a trail with you at least once.). 

So he went further up, and I went further down. I picked my way: step, step, jab. Weaved across snow, found the trail markers in the trees, and stopped, sat down, and cried as hard as I could. When I stopped, I looked up for my partner - nowhere in sight.

I've always been an anxious hiker, a cautious hiker. I don't like to go off by myself, get separated from other people. But the sun had made its way back from behind the ridge. And after all the crying I felt so much lighter. I realized - if I had to - I could make my way back down the snow, back down the trail, back to the lonely parking lot and back to Vancouver. And it was the same with every mountain, every trip - there is a loneliness, but there is also a big, unsettling freedom on the other side, So I got up, got my axe, and kept picking my way down.

So that's where my partner found me - close to the bottom of the frozen avalanche, suddenly talkative, and very ready for lunch. We found a dry enough spot and watched the gleam of sun on snow as we ate sandwiches and had a shot of whiskey.

The hike back down was slow, as we chatted and took off layers in the steady sunlight.

I want to go back, when the snow is gone. I want to see the lake that's on the other side of the ridge, to emerge, sweaty and dusty with burning legs, on the other side. I want to have the final push to the top, scrambling over rocks, measuring my breath.

I'm not really a patient person, despite many opportunities to learn about patience, And patience is a muscle, and it;s easier to exercise knowing when you can stop. Being injured without an expiration date was hard. But, at the start, I think knowing I was going to be off running for over four months would have been harder. There is a peace in not knowing, in putting off the hope and the striving and the big goals far ahead in the early light, to instead sit, and look at the view, and know that one day you will get where you want to be. I think there is something about the struggle, about setbacks, about mustering whatever kind of grace and sense of humour you have. I also don't think it all has ti be about suffering. There is always another lake, a farther ridge, a new adventure. But in the meantime - there's food, and sunshine, and good company, and it's all still so very beautiful.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Living the cliche (and also the dream)

the blow-dryer is not a big hit

There is a saying: "Things persist until you have learned what you need to learn from them."

So, the last three months (and the next couple weeks) - I have learned. I have learned about the quiet joys of West End life. I have learned about community. I have learned patience. I have rediscovered hiking. I have learned about form, and structure, and setting up the bones of the running I want.

Most importantly, I have learned that I needed to get a cat.

Cat origin story
So, one day in December when it never quite seemed to get light, I got an email from Craig. The e-mail had a picture of a cat and "Do you want a cat?". I replied for further clarifcation: "ARE YOU DRUNK?"

Timka (the cat - Craig referred to it by name so I knew he was serious) turned out to be owned by a fiancee of one of Craig's co-workers, and needed a home.

For years and years and years, Craig's main life advice to me was to not get a cat if I ever wanted to date (well, also to "relax", but not getting a cat was pretty much the only advice I actually took). Somehow, after all this time, he had finally decided that it was bigger than him: my 5am wake-ups, piles of books scattered on most free surfaces in my apartment, inability to cook much besides vegan stews, love of hiking in the dark and in rainfall warnings...a cat was just one more thing. (Craig: "You seemed like you were happy and at a good place in your life.")

A sidenote about Craig
Craig is a very competitive triathlete and runner (now married to an even more awesome triathlete and runner) and has been one of my best friends in Vancouver for the past eight years. In that time, we went from studying for our UFE accounting exam together while training for our first 10km race to having him qualify for the ITU Worlds and me doing a 50 mile race. We both went to Queen's, both started our careers at E&Y. We also both like to run, eat nachos with way too much cheese, drink Malbec, and occasionally spend way too much time on However, aside from this, we are very different people.

Sometimes, I like to bug Craig a little. Here's how I do it.
Me: "If you ever have kids, I am making myself the godmother."
Craig: "I don't think that's how it works."
Me: "I worry about your parenting. That you won't expose your child to everything. So I'll be sure to introduce him or her to fantasy novels, and maybe board games like Settlers of Catan."
Craig: "I don't think that's going to happen."
Me: "And when your kid is in school, I'll get him or her to join the drama club. OR YEARBOOK."

About me and cats
My family is a cat family. We have had cats as long as I can remember. My parents currently have designer cats - the kinds that are an actual breed and papers. This is a first for them. It occurred because, after years of semi-rejection by our former rescue cats, my mom wanted a cat that would love her, and was willing to pay for it.

Growing up, I had a cat. Poggi was the result of a teenage pregancy. One of the kittens in the litter didn't get enough oxygen at birth, and the vet said this kitten was likely brain-damaged. Obviously, this was the kitten that 9-year-old Alex picked. Poggi was sweet and affectionate and confused be life: the vacuum cleaner, the mean birds outside, why we didn't want to let him in and out of the house 20-times within an hour (this is not an exaggeration). On the plus side - Poggi was affectionate (due to what might have been short-term memory loss). He would sleep in my bed, right next to me and didn't even stir when I inevtiably ended up rolling over right on top of him in the middle of the night. On the minus side - he was half siamese, which quickly became anytime he either became confused (often) or wanted anything, ever (also often, with the added benefit that he would then forget what it was he originally wanted, and the entire process would repeat). Which basically worked out to constant meowing.

Our family cats always had boundary issues. If the cat was sitting on the couch and one of us wished to move it: "Why are you upsetting the cat?". The cats were also always getting locked in various areas - the cupboards, the pantry, the chicken shed, the greenhouse - that then called for Mom starting a search effort. At breakfast, it was completely acceptable for the cats to jump up on our laps while at the table. The cats gave us presents at Christmas and birthdays. Any phone call with my parents would end up discussing the cats (were they happy? where we they sleeping? had the male one tried to play chicken with cars on the Island's main road again?)

As I grew up and lived on my own, I started to think about this behaviour as pretty silly, a bit over the top. I never owned a cat in one of my old places - they weren't allowed. So when I was looking for apartments in the rain one December ago, and saw my current place - I loved the light through the huge windows, the old wood floor, the leaded glass cabinets. And I saw that one cat was allowed. And I signed that day.

Then, this past spring, I got my first request to cat-sit. And my request, I mean that every time my cat-owning friends planned a trip, I begged to look after their cat. Finally, they caved. Cleo, a lovely full-figured Calico cat, arrived at my apartment the last couple weeks of busy season.

I immediately proved that I was nothing like my parents, and, furthermore, definitely not crazy, by taking about 10 pictures of her a day (all from flattering angles!). I then made the situation even worse by showing these pictures to....well, pretty much everybody.

A side note on my friendship with Anthony
I met Anthony at a VFAC gathering after the Sun Run 10k, where he ended up sitting next to me. After talking to him for about five minutes, I started to show him the cat-sitting pictures I have accumulated on my phone. Every. Single. Damn. Picture. Anthony is from France, so I told him that, yes, this was normal, and all Canadian girls do this. I think he was somewhat sketpical.

Despite this beginning, Anthony and I continued to be friends. When I was recovering from broken foot v 1.0, we started our weekly tradition of doing the Grouse Grind before work. The goal was to break 40minutes that summer. It never happened - the closest I got was 41 minutes in Birkenstocks the day I forgot to change into my trail shoes (and now, every time I pick Anthony up, he discreetly checks my feet to make sure I am wearing something semi-appropriate).

I think that my friendship with Anthony has taught him some valuable cultural lessons, the key of which is that Canadian women are crazy. I'm sure he always thought this, but the first time he actually said it was on my birthday. As my 30th fell on a Wednesday, which was Grouse Grind day, some of my girlfriends decided to join to help celebrate. One of these was Allison, and, coincidentally, it was the due date for her pregnancy that day. Anthony was concerned: did her husband know? Could he not stop her? What was she doing? He did not seem entirely convinced by my answers that this was Allison, and when she decided to do the grind at nine months' pregnant, she would do the damn grind (and in under an hour, too!).

Since then, he has continued to learn the ways of Canadian women:
Me: "Your run out to Manquam lake inspired me, we went to do it last week."
Anthony: "Great!"
Me: "It was really hot going over those volcanic flat, did you get hot too?"
Anthony: "Yes. It was okay." (in French, "it was okay" is code for "it was goddamn awful but I am too polite and stoic to complain.")
Me: "I got really bitchy the last 3km down to the lake. I felt better after we went swimming."
Anthony: "You brought a swimsuit?"
Me: "Not  exactly."
Anthony: "I will never understand Canadians."

 Back to the cat
So, I think cat ownership is going well. The first day was basically me staring at the cat, who was lodged as far underneath the couch as he could get. Since then, things have improved. And having a cat (or, at least, having this cat) is pretty awesome.

As a competitive runner, I am familiar with the concept of deferring short-term gratification for long-term results. This aproach has been shot to hell. The thing is - after finally emerging out from underneath the couch, the cat and I have a routine going more or less. One of the parts of this routine is bedtime. As in, I go to bed, and the cat purrs and curls up right next to my chest, and we fall asleep.

Short term, this is kind of cute. Long term, a responsible pet owner would set boundaries that do not include sleeping on the bed, because if anyone ever sleeps over, they would have to deal with a purring Norwegian forest-cat trying to do deep-tissue massage on them by aggressively kneading their shoulder.

And, to end, I just want to make the point that rescue cats do need a home, they can be awesome (this one knows how to fetch and roll over!), and you can worry the hell out of all your friends by getting one, so I definitely recommend.

Friday, 2 January 2015


I started 2014 at Lucy's kitchen table, very sad about a guy, very introspective, training for a marathon with an undiagnosed broken ankle. I am starting 2015 at my own kitchen table, a little sad about a guy, still introspective, with a healed metarsal stress fracture, dreaming about training for Transrockies (to be fair, if you consider my taste in music, it could be that semi-mopey and introspective is more or less a default setting for me).

So, to an objective observer, it wouldn't appear that this year has been entirely successul.

I broke my foot (twice). I moved into an apartment (with a broken foot, version 1.0) in the West End with unreliable appliances, suspect plumbing, and tempermental electrical wiring. I got separated and stayed separated. I worked a tough busy season. I lost friends, missed races, and had times where I felt disconnected with the running community. I gave up the trust I had in my body, the easy speed, the confidence in my breath.

I started thinking about rehab, about recovery, and stopped making so many plans for the future. The thing is: I'm a planner. I like to schedule, think ahead, and see my life stretching out in front of me. This year defied my best attempts at planning, and was all the better for it. 

All my running and outdoor adventures were last minute: Costa Rica on ten days's notice, San Diego on three days, Transrockies on less than three weeks. I look at pictures from those trips - the sunlight, the ocean and mountains, and how I'm smiling in each one, really smiling, double chin smiling at the gift of being somewhere beautiful, outdoors, doing what I love.

about to scrape the hell out of my leg "shortcutting" down the Black Tusk

off-trail on the BCMC

It turns out that I do things besides running - and getting injured. The year before, I looked for a new job. I had resumes and cover letters and interview prep. This year, after a long busy season where all I was thinking about was how to catch up on a month's worth of sleep, a new job found me. It was unplanned, out of left field - and I said yes. In a big way, and in so many little ways, I started to believe: things work out. Maybe not how I hoped, maybe not how I thought they were supposed to, but in their own quiet way.

Those are the big things - and they were amazing. For me, though, the year was made from all the small things. I had Canada Day in Tofino, playing cards and hiking to WWII bombers through mud and mosquitos. There was the August long weekend in Whistler, going out dancing and then spending a lazy day on a raft in the middle of the lake. On my 30th birthday, I was hugely lucky to have my friends plan a weekend in the Okanagan. We played power ballads on the drive up, biked to wineries in the late summer heat, had brunch overlooking the lake, and ran on trestles on the edge of the mountainside. Finally, in October, I had a housewarming party. People stayed until three, drinking and living room dancing and somehow not managing to get me evicted. On Thanksgiving, we hiked Elfin to low clouds and chilly rain in dresses. On a quiet day in late October, I kayaked down, way down, Indian Arm to a blue-grey sunset and clouds spilling down from the mountains. I learned to paddleboard in late November in West Vancouver, loong down at bottle-green barnacles in the wan sunlight. In December, I saw the sun rise light up Diamond Head in Squamish as I climbed towards Petgill Lake.

dreamy Kelowna
Squamish - worth getting changed in a wind-tunnel in the dark for

And the many even smaller moments. Waking up Wednesday to do the Grind in various degrees of rainfall warnings, pitch-black, ice and slipperly snow. Drinking coffee and fighting a hangover in Lucy's kitchen, with the light spilling in through the windows. Drinking tea on the couch in East Vancouver and talking about art and life and the last 8 years with old friends. Having drinks at Lolitas and listening to live music at the Olympic Village. Every damn sunset at English Bay. Hosting Man Night (red meat, fist-pumping, and attempting to read the $2.99 soft-core "romance" novel) in my apartment. Failing horribly at board games. Yoga and going to my first shooting range on ladies' night. All the runs I did, and all the runs I want to do.

I don't think this needs an explanation

The finest romance under $5 gets you

I wish I could post something big, something to end the year on a high note: a great recent race result, a really inspirational life thought, or even looking really good in a Christmas party dress. Instead, I ended the year quietly. Hiking around in the snow on the local mountains, seeing my friends for a drink in the evenings, organizing potluck dinners, walking down to English Bay for the early sunsets, reading in a coffee shop, trying a new recipe.

For the past 30 years, I've tried a lot of things to be happy. I tried running really fast. I tried to lose weight. I tried love and I tried self-help and I tried working really hard. And everything I tried - I took away something, I learned. In the end, though, it was a huge relief to stop trying so hard. And I stopped worrying as much about happy, anyways. The same way there was a muted, quiet beauty about the November days and early evenings, there is a lpeace in sadness, an empathy from loneliness. Happiness is a loud laugh, but there is also something also to be said for a soft, measured voice.

These days, this year, I've found myself smiling more often than not, crying a bit more than I've been used to - and grateful all the time.

2014 was an amazing year, and I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Thank you all, and see you on the Grind, in the gym...and soon on the trails! :)