This past week, I went to the Dandy Warhols concert with Lucy. The Dandy Warhols are an almost-poppy band with hard guitar riffs and big sound that’s just weird enough that they were liked by all the cools kids. The cool kids back in the 90s, at least. Based on the crowd at the concert, most of the band’s current fans had greying hair, wore khakis with sweaters tucked in, jeans that fit, and running shoes (because concerts entail a lot of standing and its best to be comfortable.
A years-ago road trip to Portland for Barry and I to race the Mount Hood 50 mile. It was July, inland hot with clear blue skies. The race went well – if getting passed for second place while walking downhill, intermittently throwing up, from mile 40 onwards is well. The real point of the race was the time in Portland after. By the time we arrived in the city, the sky was tingeing purple and the heat was mellowing to a soft warm breeze.
We did what you do in Portland. Wander around on streets that have the warm faded look of 1970s photographs of Venice Beach. Drink coffee. Look at vintage clothing and new underwear at a store with a pink trim (while Barry waits outside). Drink beer on a patio overflowing with the flowers from the house next door, to thank Barry for his patience during said underwear browsing. Eat food. And visit a music store, the kind that smells like old hardwood floors and someone’s attic. While I was looking at old album covers, Lucy was buying used Dandy Warholds CDs – because this was a place that still sold CDs. On the drive home, air conditioning on high, speakers thrumming with music that was sort of upbeat and sort of sad and had the occasional strange parts that went on too long, which was maybe the point.
The concert was Lucy’s idea, my ticket a gift from her. The Dandy Warhols are one of her favourite bands. She’s listened to them running and dancing and, these past months, print-making over 200 Christmas cards by hand in her basement, a project that she describes as “Epic. Fucking Epic.”
The band hadn’t been on tour for years, hadn’t put out any new music for even longer. This was the first stop of their tour. Smoke poured behind the stage, red lights came on and the concert opened with that same big sound. In case anyone was wondering, this isn’t the story of a triumphant comeback. This is a 2/3rds full Commodore of people swaying all very civilized, drinking their one beer slowly because it was a Tuesday night and they had work the next morning. This was a concert where the vocalist forgot the words to one of the songs, leaned back to the drummer to ask for a reminder. Where the music stopped, in the middle, for five minutes because a different band member announced she had to go to the bathroom. And when they played “Bohemian Like You”, it sounded like less of an upbeat, edgy theme song for living a dishevelled, wanna-be artist lifestyle and more like a nostalgic look back on an old way of life.
I drank two coffees and my own one beer, made it up to almost midnight, and had a great time. So did all of us. Even still, walking back in the cold clear night, we talked about how, in our heads, it could have been different, been better: the band could have chose upbeat, dance-y songs and not just the weird ones, could have played all the songs we liked instead of the ones we didn’t, could have done an encore and not just turned the house lights on and walked off the stage.
It’s sort of how things go. Quite a lot of the time, underneath the CD sounds of tight riffs, solid chords, of energy and noise are just a group of people, a bit older and a bit more beat up by life and maybe (or maybe not) a bit wiser. Who still have most of the talent and are doing their best - even if their best doesn’t necessarily entail remembering all the words. It’s not perfect, it’s far off from perfect, but it’s real.
Before the band started, Lucy and I were talking about this past year, our tenth year of running together and being friends. We both had some good parts, some hard parts, some in-between parts, a lot of 5:45am running in the dark on the seawall on Tuesday morning parts, and here we were, at the end of it, together.
She also said something else to me, because I had no big things to show for my year, the things you are maybe supposed to show when you are 32 years old, work at a professional job, and run more days than not: no promotion, no engagement ring (I suppose “been there, done that” doesn’t really count), no new house, no top-anything finishes (hell, no finishes, as I didn’t make it to a race start line this year). She said it was okay, because I was slowly building, and that I was doing it in a way that was real. Then I hugged her and we both stood together in the kind of comfortable silence you get when you’ve spent years of Saturday mornings on trails as we waited for the band to start.
So I thought back on the year, on all the almost-epic things I did that got shrunk back down to human size.
My trip down to Arizona to visit Shannon in late February, where we planned to put on spikes and run our way through icy empty brilliant national parks. Less than two weeks before, I rolled my ankle on the gentle uphill to Norvan falls and spent Valentines’ Day eve in the Lion’s Gate emergency room with Lucy after hobbling out for almost two hours in the rain and being greeted in the parking lot by emergency vehicles.
Shannon and I still went to Monument Valley, walked on a red dirt road with the white-tinged Wasatch range rising at the edge of the desert, watched the colours deepen over these stones like floating islands as we drank tea and wrapped ourselves in blankets. We still saw the sun filter through Antelope Canyon, saw the shocking blue of Lake Tahoe. Neither of us really ran that week – but we parked our car on an empty dirt road just outside of Flagstaff in a late afternoon, walked uphill until dirt gave way to snow and caught the sunset spread over a single road, nothing but low scrubs and the gleam of a few trailers in the last light. We did all the other things Shannon and I do: drink coffee and eat salads and discuss boys and feelings and books – and after hugging her goodbye at the airport, talking to her on the phone a few weeks later felt like picking up a conversation we had just had, had been in the middle of having, really, since her and I did our first run together over three years ago.
I entered and got chosen for the Kneeknacker 30 mile lottery, training longer and longer on Saturdays, feeling fast and strong right up until rolling my ankle – again, because I am both impatient and slow to learn – on a balmy May evening just past St. George’s bench. Once more, I was spending sunny evenings indoors on the elliptical, doing balancing exercises between phone calls at work.
Although I didn’t end up racing Kneeknacker, I started running again with Tara and Alicia. It had been years since we’d gone out on trails together. We did big climb-y hikes, the girls graciously taking walk breaks on the downhills to accommodate my still-healing ankle. It felt less like running and more like coming home, all of it, from the car rides up to the trailheads, finding the last gas station leaving Vancouver, getting coffee on the way, the burn of the first uphills, the laughing and the talking and the freedom that comes from being with other people who dream of mountains.
I was able to take those weekends chasing the girls and run the Enchantments trail in Leavenworth by myself on a baking hot Canada day. I remember getting to the first lake in just over 90 minutes, the sun hitting the tops of the mountains, the impossible blue of the water. Running alongside a second lake on smooth singletrack and seeing a mountain goat in a sunlit clearing at the edge of the water. Another climb up granite criss-crossed with steams. Another lake, grey and choppy. Then the snow – the trail a series of cairns and footsteps, the remaining lakes frozen, trees stunted and bent by the winds. I reached the top of Aasgard Pass, looking out onto sea of snowy mountains before I dropped down to the final lake, then five last miles as boulder fields smoothed out to an even wide trail that smelled like baking dust.
I hitchhiked back to town with two hikers who had climbed and camped 7,000 feet up in search of snow in July. They asked me – did I get scared, did I get lonely out there? And thinking back to the final stretch of snow, nobody else in sight, everything grey and cold – when I realized I wasn’t lonely, wasn’t scared, wasn’t sad. That I had food in my bag and water and enough clothes and all I wanted to do as keep going, see what was next. I didn’t know I was capable of that kind of freedom.
I was supposed to pace Tara for her Fat Dog 120 mile race, running with her on a rolling stretch in the early morning. The week before, I managed to sprain my sternum and bash my ankle (again!) chasing Alicia down Crown Mountain on a Friday evening at sunset. So instead, Kristina and I drove out to Manning Park, stopping in Hope for iced coffee, arriving too early and making up the time using the free wi-fi at the lodge. Picking up our other pacer, and on the drive out to his starting point, realizing that my gas was half full and the one gas station would be closing ten minutes before we would arrive. Luckily, the gas station stayed open late and we had enough time to spend half an hour waiting for Tara as the temperature dipped enough for the mosquitos came out.
Tara was in and out of the aid station in a few minutes – this was after having already run for over 8 hours. She picked up more food, changed socks, checked her flashlights then headed out to run her way through the entire night. Kristina and I spent the entire night attempting to sleep in the back of my Honda Fit, which was parked next to a generator and across from the floodlights of the aid station. We woke up sweaty after a mostly sleepless night and moved into Alicia’s car, Kristina in full running gear, as dawn cracked a line of light over the mountains. Tara came in, still running strong, still moving through. We were too tired for pictures or hugs and then they both left, headlamps on, back into the woods in the disappearing dark.
I had a week with Chris and Lucy on Hornby Island, where we ran in shorts and sports bras and washed by skinny-dipping at Little Tribune bay. Where we did afternoon walks along the water or to the gin distillery, spent hours at the beach alternating between laying on warm round stones and cooling off in an ocean so blue and sparkling it felt like we were in the Mediterranean. Evenings drinking beer out of wine glasses, reading on the balcony to the sounds of Chris playing guitar, reading until the sky changed from blue to pink to purple and the moon rose over Texada island.
I spent close to three months building back my running. I did 50k weeks, all easy, went to the gym, went to yoga. Experimented with shoes, stretching, strength. Took time, way more time than I wanted to take. It’s not that running felt good or pain-free because it didn’t, always. But it felt like I was moving through.
There is nothing epic about mornings on the seawall, Saturdays doing the same 20-ish km run to Cleveland Dam and back. To doing 1km a bit faster than I used to. To trying to balance on one leg and falling over. To the weird parts that twinged and rolling out in the evenings. In October, I finally went back up the Grouse Grind, spent a snowy perfect day running to Elfin. In November, I started running to Norvan again.
The 50mile race I did back in 2013 with Lucy in Mt. Hood turned out to be the last ultra-distance race I’ve done. After all this time, it feels at once very strange and very familiar to once again train consistently.
I’m a serious person, and I very often get too serious about the wrong things. Running a lot, regularly, can make other parts of my life recede: friends, career, writing, even doing laundry consistently can get put on the back shelf to 80km weeks. We talk about long runs and use words like extreme or suffering and it can be hard to remember that our sport isn’t Syria – that, if this is at all suffering, it's a type that we choose, one that can stop anytime. That to be healthy enough to run the distance you want to run, to have a life where your biggest issue is planning a weekend route or your tempo not being as fast as you hoped is its own gift.
When I try to define my life by which goals I’ve crushed, by all those things that I want that I don’t have, it’s the same feeling I get by eating handful after handful of candy and feeling both sick and never quite full. I should know, because I’ve spent a lot of time doing both.
So here’s what I can say I’ve done this year.
I’ve spent evening after evening drinking wine and eating dinner with close friends. I’ve seen sunrise and stars and storms on the seawall. I’ve had days where I came home at 6pm, cried and couldn’t stop crying, then got up the next day, put on makeup, and went to work. That I’ve said the wrong things, made bad decisions, hurt feelings and so made all kinds of mistakes. That I did all these things and still, when my alarm clock went off, drank coffee and went to the gym or for a run and apologized and learned and kept going. That I kept going. That I did the best I could, tried fix what could be fixed, and walked away from what couldn’t. The times I told the truth and tried to be kind and, most of all, I kept on moving.
I’m not one of those upbeat people who make lemonade with life’s lemons. I’m one of those people who are okay with the lemons, because I believe some bitterness is necessary to give life its flavour. Parts of the year, like all years, have been bitter, and parts have been beautiful. And for both, I’m so damn grateful.