Thursday, 13 July 2017

Shoring up the Ruins

I was in an almost-one-year relationship that recently ended. It's a normal thing for relationships to end: the majority of them do, until they don't. I was hoping for the not-ending scenario, the way you do when you are within squinting distance of 33 and squinting distance of being in love and the outside of your fridge is covered with your friends' wedding invitations and portraits of newborns. The breakup wasn't even awful. I think I can say talk with some authority about awful, as previous breakups have included a four-year relationship where my ex-boyfriend came out as gay afterwards, and a disastrous blink of a marriage that saw me moving out of a not-moved-into condo with a freshly stress-fractured foot. I can say things ran their course, I can say it's been worse - but I can also say I put off telling my Mom for over a week.

So I'll tell people, and there is a pause. I tell myself that pause is the other person taking a breath or observing the weather and not at all related to pity. Anyways, when I get a pause, or even if I don't but think one is being considered, I jump in: "But, I'm running again these days. I'm actually consistently over 70km a week, doing speedwork, and I've even started to go back to VFAC." And if this person is part of my accounting life, they nod and smile as much as they can, and usually will let me change the subject to their job (and promotions), their spouse and child and the home they own and work on and decorate. Runners, though, they understand - there's the sad smile, that silver lining of sweat and sunrises and a slow build towards something.

Which brings me, after five years, to starting to show up to VFAC on Thursday evenings. The first time I was there, we waited in a muggy dusk as our coach stretched out the hamstring of a runner laying on his back. This was done before giving us times and assigning us to pace groups. I started and didn't feel good or fast - because I was not running well, or fast. The next week, I jogged over with Kristina and somehow got us lost enough to do an extra 3k on warm-up. While we should have been late to the workout start, VFAC time-space continuum meant we were still early. Early enough to arrive right in the middle of Drew giving a speech about a member who had just died - someone I had run with, years ago, who I didn't even realize was sick. Even though we're meeting in the same places and doing the same workouts, even though so many of the same people are still there, time has moved on and keeps moving on in occasionally heartbreaking ways.

I've done more workouts. Ones where I've forgotten my own water and gurgled down Brandon's in one swallow. Where the mosquitos swam into the sweat on my chest and I showered them off afterward. Always, running as hard as my lungs and my legs can handle, with a disappearing person in front of me, afterwards the hugs and the high-fives and the slow jog back into the West End.

I took a road trip with the same ex-boyfriend this past April to Flagstaff to visit Shannon. We drove through Washington, Oregon, one long day all of Idaho, until we saw the Wasatch range way into the distance in Utah. A night in a motel at the edge of Ogden, people rattling through the hallways, the dog barking all night. The next morning, billboards along the highway for Narcotics Anonymous groups and for encouraging fathers to stay with their children as the rain pounded the dirt and the dead bugs off my car. Even as it was raining, in the distance, we saw clear blue.

A small road and then a smaller road and then the big burnt afternoon sky, the dust deepening red. We drove past the bones of old mines, past crumbling cement plants miles from any towns. 2pm and a sliver of moon far on the horizon. The sun was hot and the wind blew without any bite of coldness. I took off my pants, replaced them with shorts, took of my shirt, replaced with a tank top. Finally applied sunscreen. We entered the Grand Escalante National Monument, pulled over on an unmarked road to pee and watch the dog throw up quietly and run through scrubs to a low ridge, where we looked onto other low ridges and felt the slow bake of heat. We wound up through forest, up as the snow patches joined into a blanket, another pull-over into the dried out landscape and the mountains in the distance. Late afternoon, at our campsite on the edge of a bottle green creek, we went for a run along the edge of a canyon in the shadows and dust to a waterfall. I could feel tired from the drive, sweaty and pudgy from a long, cold winter, with that edge in my stomach because I was with a person who I loved who I wasn't sure loved me back and it was just us - and I felt all of it, but also a deeper happiness - because it was beautiful and I could move in this beautiful place, could go and just keep going. All I wanted to do was keep going.

Two days later, we arrived in Flagstaff. My car covered in dust, my running gear crammed into the backseat. The first thing we did when we met up with Shannon was go for a run, the second thing we did was eat pizza, and the third thing we did was finally take a shower. I'd say the fourth thing I did, the next day, was visit the used book store in downtown Flagstaff. I found an old copy of The Wasteland and other collected TS Eliot poems. The time with Shannon was like an oasis: talking about all the things I'd waited to talk about, a cool evening in the Grand Canyon and a hot run in Sedona. Reading the tarot cards for her and her firefighting, jacked-up truck owning, topless car-washing, tattoed housemate Dwayne in the living room underneath the watchful eyes of the head of a deer that Dwayne had shot and killed the previous year.

We left, and cranked through Nevada, Vegas, Death Valley in a sandstorm until we hit the Eastern Sierras. In our tent that night, I started to read the Wasteland. I didn't understand most of it - this remains the case. I think some things you're not meant to fully understand. I got to the end, after the poem is so sad and so hopeless, until it finally isn't as hopeless: "these are the fragments I shore against my ruins." And its easy to think of life as one long, slow-moving ruin, against which we do the very best we can, with whatever fragments we have.

In my non-running life, I'm an accountant. I have the privilege of working with other accountants, some of whom occasionally go through tough times. Part of my job is working with these accountants to get them to a place where they do the work they want to do the right way. Sometimes, I've had people going through hard situations ask me, with more grace and grit than I could ever muster: "Okay, what do I do now? How would you deal with this?" It's not always easy to find the words, and the best I can muster is usually: "You go to bed. The next morning, you get up - even though it's really hard - and you go to work. At work, you do the best you can do. And you go home, and the next morning, you wake up and do it again. After each day, it's a bit easier."

This is all easy to say, and quite a bit more difficult, in real life, to do. What helps, when I need to muster up grace and dredge up patience, is running. The actual act of it, and all the very positive, inspirational stuff that comes with it that I try my best to ignore, until I can't anymore. And running is a part of me. Even when I'm not running - when I'm swimming or biking or stretching or rolling out or worrying over a pain or a tight spot - I'm running. I can be cynical and clever and rational, but this only lasts until things get tough.

I ran a 50km in Winthrop a few months ago. The weather was sunny, the far-off mountains and close-up wildflowers beautiful. I wasn't that fit and was coming in on fumes but I still ran and kept running, which can get you surprisingly far in races that distances. It was close to the end, all the parts of my body that could be sore were sore, and I was alone, running down singletrack to the finish line. I had food, I had water, nothing was devastatingly injured or broken. But it was still really hard to keep going. I counted breaths, I slowed down, and, finally, I told myself: "Be Brave." You can usually tell that you are not having your best race when you are reverting to some inspirational quote found on instagram. I said it and knew it was ridiculous - this wasn't Syria, was something I chose and could stop any time - but I kept saying it. At the end of the race, when Barry and Amber were waiting at the end, I was too tired to be anything besides really, really grateful.

So these Thursday evenings, as I chase ghosts of my faster, younger, lighter self through trails as the sun slants liquid through the trees, I try to find answers to why I'm still running and running this way. I'm not sure if I'm trying to get fast - I was faster once, and it was still not even close to enough. I don't have a race planned - when people ask what I'm training for, I say "life", and I mean it in the way that life can be difficult and its good to practice the basics of keeping going when things hurt, irregardless of where the hurt comes from. I can also say that it's good to be back, that I've been lonely and missed the community - this is more true. And finally, I can say that everyone has ruins in their own life and is doing the best they can to wake up in the morning. For me, I'm lucky enough to have found these fragments that help to shore me up against all the rest of life.

Sunday, 11 December 2016


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.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

We Got Older

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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