WINTERBIKE!

Where I live, the snow really comes down. The snow really comes down and then the wind comes up and then we all stay in. Back to the dreadmill or the track, convinced that we can pass the winter in 400’s, doing speedwork, staring at the wall or, worse, Netflix. Or, for those of us with enough Shackleton in our blood, we snap on the snowboarding goggles, layer up and head out anyway, into whatever is waiting out there, trudging through hours of 8 minute kilometres and repeatedly telling ourselves that it’s all strength training, that it’s all good.

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And while all of this is true — all of this and the goodness of skiing and snowshoeing, back country trekking and skating — I have yet to find anything as satisfying, challenging, or engaging as cycling all winter.

For the sake of some street cred, let me first say that I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick where last winter we got 409cm of snow between November and March and where the average temperature in January and February hovers around -10 before the wind chill. So yeah, winter.

After commuting year round for the past four years and recently taking up trail riding in the winter, here are my lessons learned for those looking to really rock the season. (And, for what it’s worth, I ran outside as well, opting for the track only once — it sucked — and won my first race in the spring after almost exclusively basing my training for the five months leading up to it on nordic style skiing and cycling through the snow!)

Type of bike

— commuting:  Given the severity of our winters, the amount that roads get salted and sanded, the variety of conditions that you’ll ride through, and the likelihood that you’ll have to get a ‘new’ bike every 3 – 4 years, I suggest that you buy a used, heavy, steel framed beater with gears. The kind of bike is really inconsequential, though I do recommend getting a second hand higher end bike going for $300 – $500 instead of a department store special. The steel frame will help you crush it through snow and slush and wind, and the original, better quality components won’t let you down when you need them most!

— trail:  FATBIKE!  As a friend of mine once said, mountain bikes are cool because they got us into the woods, but fatbikes are GREAT because they made it FUN! As opposed to the commuter, this is where it’s worth it to spend the money. That being said, if your primary interest is in winter trail riding/ cross training and not bikepacking, I recommend avoiding bikes (and the added cost) that come equipped with all of the bells and whistles to hook up a dozen saddlebags, and instead go with a hard tail with a 1 X 10 set up — seriously, for floating over the snow, powering the hills and getting super strong while staying lean and having fun all winter (common wisdom has it that winter fatbiking burns 1500 calories per hour!), the less moving parts the better!

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Bike accessories

— commuting: To commute with ease, I have found that studded tires and solid fenders are absolute necessities and worth every cent to buy the very best (which still isn’t going to even be a fraction of what your car’s winter tires are going to take you for). Seriously, everything gets better when your bike is sporting both. Not so necessary are things like saddlebags and back racks — when your sliding on ice, reducing unevenly distributed weight is a godsend (see “Clothing Accessories” below for the alternative).  All told, and much unlike cars which need things like block heaters, bum warmers, antifreeze, antilock breaks, windshield fluid, etc. etc. etc., your commuter bike just needs something to keep it stable, two fenders to protect you front and aft, and for you to have a healthy breakfast.  Warmth on a bike comes from the INside.

— trail: Unless you want a light to ride in the dark, there are no necessary accessories! Your FATBIKE — basic, stripped down, with low psi in the tires, cleaned and well-lubed — is all you need.  The rest is all for show and, really, isn’t biking through the woods in the snow all the badass any of us can handle anyway? (Buy a light…)

Clothing accessories

— communting: Now it comes to the rub, right? How can I get to work or school without sweating to death, without freezing my body parts off, dry and (imagine!) satisfied that I can keep doing it? In his book ‘Frostbike’, Tom Babin comes to the conclusion that the primary factor in winter cycling isn’t the bike or the weather, but whether or not it’s easy; as such, clothes are a real concern — especially if you do not have access to a shower.  That being said, here are a few of the things that have made my commute 100% possible and enjoyable.

  1. carry on — a big, well-fitted backpack with weather proof cover, the former of which can cost as much as you like, but the latter should only take you for about $50 and is worth its weight in gold as it will protect the contents from above AND below.
  2. over layer — splash pants, snow mobile mitts, weather proof shell, buff, hat, goggles, boots and gaters.  All depending on the severity of the weather, these items can be added and subtracted (and even replaced by the things you wear during the spring or fall), but each are meant to keep you DRY and not necessarily warm!
  3. under layers — your full body base layer (made of a sweat wicking material like 100% Merino wool) might very well be the most expensive item you purchase for winter cycling; therefore, I suggest that you do your research and put it on every Christmas list you’re asked for — why not?  Mom will buy you undies for sure! And not just undies, you’ll want Santa to get you a pair of socks, long underwear, T-shirt, long sleeve and sweater. These light, wool items keep you super warm and dry easily (and without stench) when hung in your office. They also make it so all you need is a towel in the bag (and some deoderant) to let you go to work. Trust me, I’m a teacher, this works.

— trail: unlike commuting, riding FATBIKE on trail is warm business, so with the exception of a pair of boots and mittens, you can usually get away with your base layer, some thermal tights and a warm upper with a wind breaking jacket.  In other words — put on your running clothes. Seriously, 1500 calories per hour — what do you expect?

To my mind, there’s nothing mysterious or insane about riding your bike all winter — like running, it’s way more about the clothes and the attitude than it is about the weather.  The benefirs — in addition to the Vitamin D to fight against SADD and the antidote to cabin fever — are numerous and include giving you a new, solid challenge, staying strong and lean over winter, and giving you some serious street cred.  And after all, doesn’t all that really sum it up?

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Eat on the run; or, Vegan Black Metal Runner

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When I heard Kilian Jornet say that he basically survives off of Nutella and pizza, which was then reinforced by that awesome/ damned Jenn Shelton who famously quipped that “you can eat anything so long as you keep the furnace hot enough”, I threw caution to the wind and… completely f**ked up my sleep, energy levels and, ultimately, one race after another.

Then I started listening to Timothy Olson and Scott Jurek and, before I knew it, I was skinny as a rake, bonking on every run over 20k and riding an emotional roller coaster that was, make no mistake, just as wicked and vomit-inducing as quitting smoking was.

Then paleo.

Then pescatarian.

Then the 100 mile diet.

Slow cooking. Organic. Non-GMO.

Etc., etc., etc.

At a race not so long ago, my wife was, in a funny way, discussing this with a a fellow runner’s wife who said “oh yeah, they’re all like that.”

And we are — obsessive. Dedicated. Neurotic. Focussed. Fickle.

But like Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers, we also have the 10, 000 hours (or at least kilometres) to have a thing or seven figured out.  At least for ourselves.  So, don’t take this as the be-all-end-all in running meal plans, but it might help a bit if you’re getting going on this long distance thing, or remind you of how to play nice if you’ve been at it for a bit and are getting a little crusty…

Ready?

  1. As the smarty pants Michael Pollen in his book ‘In defense of food’ said: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much, and BAM! it’s pretty much as simple as that… with the following smarty pants qualifiers… ‘Food’ is here to be understand as in ‘not plastic’, as in not from a box, as in locally grown where possible, as in righteous/ from the earth goodness. Food, that is, as nutritious, life giving and delicious.  Next, by ‘plants’ we mean things that grow in the ground, on trees or in bushes and low lying plants.  This includes fruits and vegies, nuts and seeds and all that awesome stuff.  ‘Not too much’… man, there’s the rub, right?  Don’t stuff yourself.  Don’t have to unbutton your jeans.  Have some humility. If you need a nap after dinner… well, it had better be Christmas.
  2. Like Dr. Sheehan said about your body as a whole, listen to your guts extra close.  Seriously, if it makes your bowels gurgle, your colon hurt, your #2 weird colours (except red after you eat a bushel of beets, that’s cool), or your burps especially frequent or painful, cut it out… regardless of what your personal health guide says.  And if what you took out was a cornerstone of your nutrition (like nuts as a solid source of protein and fat) make sure you replace it with something else (like avocados… avocados are good).
  3. The real drag is that just like we would love some serious permanence in our otherwise obviously ephemeral lives in somekind of grand philosophical/ existential sense, when it comes to food, what works one day may not work the next.  As such, you have to be aware of some fairly obvious things that definitely have huge impact on what you should be eating — weather and, by extension, seasons (eat heavier in the cold, lighter in the heat), where you are in the training rotation (lighter during hard sections, maybe a little more liberally during down times, with healing foods in mind during recovery), how you are feeling (don’t eat gels when you are feeling some GI issues, trust me), etc.  Be conscious, therefore, that what you put in does not go into a hermetically sealed system, but a system exposed to all of the fluctuations of nature and your body.
  4. But it’s not all about being a food fascist, right?!  I mean, we deserve some just desserts, right?!  Yes indeed, and to that end I encourage you to congratulate yourself… when you actually deserve it, and while I realize that that is probably different for everyone, one thing that is for sure is that you DON’T celebrate every hill day with a sundae, every interval with a cheeseburger deluxe, or every fartlek with half a dozen beer.  I suggest setting out the guidelines beforehand; that is, for example, just desserts come at the end of a two week hard rotation, or the beer waits until the finish line of the next ultra… five months from now.  You get the idea — consuming a sugary/ yeasty calorie for every one used up is only going to set you back…. way back.
  5. And then, after all that, definitely do not forget to feast pre- and post race. It’s up to you how to do this, but I REALLY like the pre-race pizza feast and the post race burger binge.  These feel good and right and true.  Whatever works for you guys, but these are most certainly times when it’s ok to cut loose… just remember on the pre-race meal that it should be easy to digest, easier to pass, and absolutely nurturing to your soul.  Getting to BOTH the start line and the finish gate are big deals.
  6. That being said, while your on the build I can’t recommend strongly enough the excellence of eating like a squirrel — gather food from close by (after all, you are a part of this landscape and weather cycle and what grows near you will nourish you far better than something grown in a greenhouse several hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away).  Now, there’s no need to be a fanatic here — use your reason, eat well and healthily and get as much food as you can from the farmers.  Besides, they deserve your business.
  7. Which brings me to my last point — and one which I don’t seem to be doing a very good job of myself — keep it to yourself.  You know, just because your slow cooking black metal veganism or low carb super paleo diet is doing wonders for you does not mean you have hit the pay dirt.  We’re all different, each of us searching out what’s going to help make us fast and endure long so don’t be a dick.  We’re all in this together after all.
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How to become a runner

I honestly never thought I’d write one of these, but after a good friend of mine tagged me in a link to an article ridiculously called ’25 super smart hacks to make running suck less’ and I wrote back to him saying that I thought it was essentially written for people who hate running, I definitely thought best to put my money where my mouth is.

Being negative does not help (you sort that paradox out for yourself)…

And so.

1. Run only when your heart really wants to, no matter what time of day it is or what the weather is like.  At first, this’ll probably be hardly ever; eventually, if you come to love it, it’ll be all the time.  Trust me.  Buy a day planner.

2. Only run because you love it, because you wish to ‘perfect the original art of fluid movement over rugged terrain’.  Not because yo want to be fit (any number of excellent exercise programs can do that) or because you want to lose weight (buy a bike!) or because you want to become a better, more attentive person (develop of meditation practice… for crying out loud, get yer butt on the cushion), but only because you think running is awesome.  Because it feels wicked, even when it hurts… maybe even especially when it hurts. (As an aside — all of those other things will follow…)

3. Run over rugged terrain most of the time — roads are for cars and the 0.1% of the folks who are going to win races.

4. Race, as Scott Jurek says, ‘not to beat other people but to be with other people’. The community of runners is a weird, hardcore bunch of the finest folks I’ve ever met.  Race to hang with them while you eat in your shorts, sweaty and some kind of frigging happy, sharing your healthy obsession.

5. Remember what Kilian Jornet said:  the person who snaps the ribbon isn’t necessarily the winner. Every person who achieves what was previously impossible for them, whether that’s a 40 minute 5k or a 100 miler through the mountains, is victorious.  One individual is going to cross the finishing line first and everyone else in that race is their competition —  most of us have ONE competitor: ourself, the self we used to be.

6. Drink water. Clearly.

7. Repeat after me:  walk is not a four letter word.

8. Run with a group: you’ll be amazed how wise and philosophical you all are.  You’ll be amazed how normal your weird is.

9. Run alone: you’ll be amazed at how trivial the stresses of your life becomes as your breath finally resumes its place as top priority.

10. Call yourself a runner.  Call yourself an athlete.  Eat like one, sleep like one, read the things athletes read and talk the talk of a runner.  And then congratulate yourself, regularly, for your all-too-human noble pursuit.

DoThem

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‘This is just to say’/ For the love of a Koan

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I was thinking, which always makes trouble, and my body wasn’t having any of it.  I was thinking about pain and making it go away, about cool rivers and big snacks and how much I wanted them both; about being tired, being uncomfortable in my skin, and I was thinking it was all just utterly, absurdly pointless.  I was not at all in my right mind.

In Buddhism these things are called ‘the five hindrances’, nasty and nefarious demons that come to roost in your brain, feeding on all your insecurities and doing everything in their powers to keep from waking up to the moment.  Blameless, they are without motivation, which makes them all that much worse — like terrorist splinter cells they have no head, no leader, and only exist to reek havoc.  They are the original Iago, the first bad seed:  craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth, and skeptical doubt, they are the arch enemy of that ‘most powerful weapon on earth’ and that which every endurance athlete aspires to — the ‘human soul on fire.’

So I was thinking and the demons were tucking in.  ‘You hate this’, they were saying, ‘wouldn’t you rather be resting? The pain is horrible, why are you doing this? What is the point? What do you have to prove?  Geezer.’ The more I thought — you know the drill — the more I slowed.  The more I slowed, the further away my ambition and the finishing line were getting.  The race — a 44k out and back, up and down the spine of the highest peak in eastern Canada — had been a brutal combination of steep and muddy single track, boulder fields, a snow filled pass, and an exposed stretch of scree.  ‘Take your usual marathon time’, the website had said, ‘double it and then add some’ — they had not been kidding and the more I thought about how much was left to go, the less my body was having any of it.  The demons were winning:  emotional bonk was immanent.

*

Tenting is good for you, that’s clear.  Being away from cell signals and bills, traffic and shopping malls and all other forms of consumerism camouflaged as convenience is good for you.  And this is especially true when you have kids.

That being said, it takes a while to unplug.  We’re less like lights that can be switched on and off, and a lot more like fires that flame up and slowly simmer, cool, re-ignite, blaze, flame-out, burn down.  Stress doesn’t easily leave and similarly kids need time to adjust to not having their devices (being, as we all are, afraid of the dark, which you can take as you will).  So, we bluster around the campsite, arrange and plan, sort and straighten, the kids freak out and fight with each other and then get bored.  Sitting in boredom though is good too.  We settle down, let go, and this   takes some time.  Quality boredom takes time to nurture.

Our good man of forest and field trip Henry Thoreau correctly said that “we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.  We can never have enough nature”, which is to say that we are what we eat, literally and otherwise.  Old Buddhist smart mouth Thich Naht Hahn once made the profound observation that just as we wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) eat junk food all the time, because even though it tastes good it’ll make us sick, we probably shouldn’t feed our minds junk food for exactly the same reason.  Be careful, he therefore counseled, to offer your heart good things to eat — less the candy bars and french fries of YouTube videos and Facebook updates, less the whiskey shots of news reports and the six packs of sitcoms, and more the fruits and vegetables of, well, trees and sky and, quite frankly, rocks and roots and mountain views.  We definitely get sick of cruddy TV, but “we can never have enough of nature.”

It’s hard to settle down, to get over the withdrawal of such busy, mediated lives, but once the campfire is going and sticks are cut for marshmallows, once it gets dark and all the boisterousness we brought with us from the city streets drains and the stars come out, we start to listen again.  The forest speaks and, as Annie Dillard says, “in our humility, we attend”.  It’s an awesome experience to watch nature work her magic on an agitated twelve year old’s mind.  What better medicine is there?  The stars, after all, have been paying attention to us for a long time. Again, as Dillard says, so sadly and poignantly points out, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark.  If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.  But the stars neither require nor demand it”; that onus is, as they say, on us.

*

Around 30k things start to shake down.  The boulder field on the way up (and then again down), the (count ‘em) two peaks, mud and heat and the vertical kilometre I raced the day before are all catching up and the demons are storming the hold.  I drink but I am still thirsty (I think), the pack is making my neck and back hurt (it seems), I eat but my stomach doesn’t like it (does it?).  And then I get passed.  Twice.  Things aren’t looking good (are they?).

And then, when things seem most dark, when all the tricks have failed and even the drive to crush some skulls isn’t working, my son’s voice comes to me.  Just in the nick of time; it blinks in the total darkness, just like the star he is.

*

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‘Hey dad’, my son’s voice comes through the dark.  I’m trying to get to sleep — the next day is the long race and the huge power hike/ run up the vertical kilometre has me wiped.  ‘Yes?’ ‘Do you want to hear a story?’ ‘Sure.  Lay it on me.’  I close my eyes.

‘Once there was a mouse who really wanted to fly.  His friends all knew it so one day one of them went to him and told him about a hand gliding event that was going on nearby and that this was probably his chance.  So the mouse went over, climbed into a man’s backpack and, the next thing he knew, he was flying! At first he thought it was really exciting, but then he got kind of scared and started missing his family and friends and wishing he was back on the ground with them.  But then he thought ‘no, this is what I wanted all along!’ and he really enjoyed the rest of the flight, landed safely, and had great stories for everyone.’

‘That’s a great story, thanks.’

‘When you’re out there in the mountains tomorrow dad, and when it’s really not fun anymore, remember the mouse, ok?  Just enjoy it.’

He’s twelve. I honestly have no idea how he has become so wise.

*

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As Jimi Hendrix did with guitar playing, so too has Kilian Jornet done with mountain running; that is, founded a school from which no one has graduated.  As such, the rest of us are left lumbering up and over boulders or slipping as sloppily down a scree field as an adolescent learning scales.  The rocks, very clearly and seemingly intentionally, were killing me; or, more like, I had lost all nerve and focus and was horribly giving in to all the things that were hindering me from enjoying this amazing run and finishing well:  I was craving the comfort of being back with everyone, vehemently trying to avoid the pain in my quads, restlessly wrestling with the frustrations burning up my brain, steadily giving in to my perceived exhaustion, and, worst of all, doubting what the hell I was doing out there.

And then my son’s voice:  ‘when it’s really not fun anymore, remember the mouse, ok?’ The mouse! How sweet this race? ‘Mountains, man’ I said out loud, ‘you’re in the MOUNTAINS, man!’ as I cracked out one of those exhausted, haunted, alone cackles and then proceeded to turn up the engine, righteously drowning all the voices and heading on to finish strong, happy and well.

Back home, I tell a good friend this story. “How did that kid ever get to be so smart?”

My son’s name is Koan; a kind of Zen riddle which, while stripping away all rational explanations and understandings of the world, brings the practitioner into direct experience with reality, with nature, just as she is.  If you’re into it, and the requisite ‘staring at the wall, listening to the breath’ that goes with it, it’s like a combination existential punch in the gut and slap stick comedy smack across the jowels.  A really good one goes something like this:  “A man was being chased by a tiger.  He ran towards a cliff, saw a vine hanging over the edge, grabbed hold and swung down.  The tiger stayed at the top, looking at him and growling.  As he hung there, two small mice, one black and one white, started nibbling their way through the vine.  The man saw a lone strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff — he held the vine with one hand and with the other reached out and picked the strawberry.  How delicious it tasted!”  Ha!  Hilarious!

Trust me, if I explained it, it wouldn’t be funny; koans are like that.

*

Sitting in the freezing river after the race and way better than ok, I tell Koan how much his story helped, how much I may not have made it without his help.  He offers me a banana and a swill of Gatorade.  They are amazing; I tell him they are like William Carlos Williams’ plums that he stole from the fridge, like something forbidden to mortals, “so sweet/ and so cold”.  He’s twelve and looking at me like I’m the lunatic, but the mountains are all around us so huge and the sky so blue and this river extends from winter through summer and back and so I leave it at that.  If I explained it, it wouldn’t be funny and, besides, I like the look on his face and this moment is more than enough as is.

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Lost & Found, Wilderness Division

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It’s remarkably easy to get totally lost.  Five minutes, for me apparently, in a city where I have lived my whole life is all it takes.  Not really a knight errant, who wanders around without direction or care, it’s more like I have a willful kind of topographical agnosia; that is, not only do a I have a terrible sense of direction, I love the not-knowing that comes with it. Like a wandering monk, only way more prone to eating big meals and liking my warm bed.

Sally McRae, ultrarunner and ultra-optimist, knows her stuff:  she’s tough, she’s savvy, and she’s bright.  Recently, talking about endurance athleticism, she quoted British author C.S. Lewis who once said that “hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny”. Both of them are unique spokespeople for that transformation — she having risen against serious personal odds to now be a contender in any race she enters, including the year’s Western States 100, and Lewis for his numerous personal battles over faith.  That, and he did write the Narnia Chronicles after all.

Stories of encountering conflict in the unknown are not just common in our culture, they are ubiquitous.  The idea that a person undergoes a metamorphosis only when they are as far away from their ‘comfort zone’ as they can get is the central motif of every story we tell:  from Spiderman to Casablanca, Mission: Impossible to Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Game of Thrones to Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales or The Hunger Games, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Handmaid’s Tale, Midnight’s Children, Titanic, 2001, Harry Potter, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, etc., etc., etc. The yarns we spin to make sense of this world and this fragile, beautiful, bizarre, and utterly absurd human life all hinge on this notion.  It’s how we make sense of all the things.

But it’s not an abstraction, is it?  It’s a practice, it’s a method, tried (over and over) and true.  Sounds cliche, I know, but as an old prof of mine — wise as the rock cliffs that brought him up — once said, “cliches are cliches because they’re true.”

*

It was noted aviator Anne Morrow Lindebergh who observed that “it is the wilderness of the mind, in the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger”, not, it could be added, an actual, physical location.  The unknown, the realm of vision and redemption, struggle and mystery and terror, is more a psychological ‘place’ than somewhere on a map.  The isolated, cartographic space, the wilderness or foreign land, can definitely be an impetus, but it’s just as easy to get lost in your own backyard as it is in a forest if you are vigilant in keeping your eyes open.  If only you are honest enough to acknowledge your fears and brave enough to diligently face them.

*

After two separate physiotherapy appointments and a visit with the sports medicine osteopath, I am both unhopeful and sick of seeing professionals smile at me and say ‘well, you’ve really got me stumped’.  It seems that a month ago I strained (tore?  ruptured?  effed up) my PCL in a mighty bike wipe out the day after I finished my first trail race of the season.  The PCL is a tiny contraption in behind the knee which, apparently, is responsible for the stabilization of lateral movement in your leg and, in my case, part of the buttressing assembly in my overall sense of well-being; which is to say that it keeps one running fluidly, efficiently, and for the long haul.  It is also, from all the humming and hawing I’ve heard, something that rarely gets injured and so little seems to be known about its mending.

But even unhopeful — as punk godfather Henry Rollins once growled, “hope is the last thing a person does before they are defeated” — there’s still lots of gumption left in me, and so just because I can’t run, for the time being, most decidedly and emphatically does not mean I’m sitting on the couch.

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It’s kind of a gross irony that this bike wipe-out has simultaneously derailed at least the early part of my summer’s running and totally amped up my cycling.  In the past five weeks I’ve ridden to every small town within a 50k radius of where I live, checked out all of the multi-use and ATV tracks around, and have now taken to turning down every gnarly and nasty looking opening in the forest I can find.  This recovery business is demanding.

Thus my getting so easily lost.  But that’s hardly the end of the story.  Quite the opposite.

*

When I was a kid, this whole section of the city was a forest. The powerlines, which cut a straight swath up and over the hilly terrain, was the only bit of rationalized wilderness for miles in every direction, and so that’s what we stuck to.  In the spring it was way too muddy and way too buggy, but the rest of the year it was a mainline for adventure and whether on our (ill equipped) bikes or skis, we’d roll over these hills for hours.  Today I’m sitting on my (far better equipped) Cannondale MTB staring at the powerlines from the side of the street, deciding whether to follow them, or go down this other path to my right which I’ve never noticed before.  I know from experience that it could easily come to a dead end or plow straight into a swamp or be one of a million intersecting ATV trails that lead to god-knows-where.  I look at my watch — I have two hours.  I turn right.

I am genuinely surprised when, within a matter of a few minutes and several twists and turns, I have no idea which direction I’m facing or where, in general terms, this trail is even going.  I shouldn’t be surprised — several adventure races with friends has driven the point home that I have no real sense for direction, that I am, in their terms, lost in my own mind.  I keep going — one thing that the chronically geographically challenged person learns is that you can, most of the time, just retrace your steps; knowing where you are and how to get back are, after all, two different things.  The trail turns from a fairly wide ATV track to a rougher, newer trail to basically a twenty foot wide clear cut leading directly into a muddy, bug infested middle of nowhere.  I still keep going, rolling the tall 29ers over logs and split trees and stripped bark, around stumps and through mud holes.  Every now and then I get off the whip and push it.  The bugs get nastier and thick.  I am trying to navigate both the terrain and my sense of where I am and balance that our against my watch.  An hour left, forty minutes, thirty and on the ‘trail’ goes.  it must lead somewhere, I’m telling myself, but I used to live in the country and know full well that nope, it most definitely does not have to lead anywhere.

With twenty minutes to go, I come to a crossing trail — it is packed dirt and looks a lot more promising.  I look closely at the trail and see what appear to be fresh bike tracks.  Closer up I see a dog print — someone has been here, I can’t be too far away from somewhere. I’d love to tell you that I bent down to the ground and gave it a sniff, nodded my approval and howled off towards lunch; but nah, I just sort of shrugged, hopped back on and bolted down the trail.

I probably shouldn’t deviate from the direction I’m already going, but it’s too far and too late to turn around now and it’s certainly not getting any better.  I roll out and start picking up the pace.  It’s a race against the clock now; my wife is fine with me going on any and all of these goose chases, but being late and slowing down the necessities of our family’s schedule could easily turn these trips from necessary-parts-of-what-I-do to an-unaffordable-luxury. I jam it into high gear and high tail it out of there.

Fortunately, it’s the right decision and after a few minutes I coast out onto a familiar street — in exactly the opposite place to which I thought I was headed.  For the second time today I am legitimately surprised by something which, in hindsight, I shouldn’t be.

The unknown is a weird, elusive thing: it can be right around the corner or halfway around the world, we both choose it and can be forced into it, but no matter what, it’s function remains the same: a radical change in perspective, an awakening of sorts.  That night as I sat at home and looked at the maps, trying to ascertain where the hell I’d gone, I thought about this; that even though I may not have known where I was, there was nothing frightening or challenging about the day, that other than my race against the clock there was no real conflict and, therefore, no chance for transformation. It wasn’t exactly boring, just utterly reasonable. I’d might as well have been on the stationary bike at the gym. Or doing visualization practices and waiting for the pounds to strip away.

It is entirely possible that I’m an epiphany junkie, that I’m just wired for not being able to appreciate the subtle beauty of the world unless it is grossly overemphasized, but either way I’m in this deep because I truly believe that life has no meaning other than what we give it and if you really want to live it, then you have to dig in with everything you’ve got.  When it comes to pounding hearts and dripping  sweat and having your breath stolen by a vista or a near miss or having no idea where you are, I’m all in.

I picked a spot on the map, a stretch of old rail bed turned rough trail that I had never been to — I had no idea what kind of shape it was in, only the most vague notion of how long it was (“the map”, Alfred Korzybski so painfully pointed out, “is not the territory”), and the barest inkling of how to get to it. 50k south, once on the trail I would be outside cell reception and on my own.  It was the same impulse that has driven every explorer beyond what’s drawn on the paper or in the minds of general opinion.

Sometimes it’s best to just jump.

*

The ride had been longer than I had anticipated and the grand thoughts that had generated my plan had long since evaporated — it was just as the 19th century Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had lamented, that “adventure is just bad planning.”  Now I was, quite simply, way out in the sticks.  As I spun along, the gravel agitating my already addled sense of security and determination, I let my mind get the better of me — what if I wiped out here?  How far away was I? Could I handle it if a bear stepped out in front of me? Or a pack of ATV riding, beer swilling yahoos?  I made a short list to put and keep things in check — animals, yes, I think I could deal with that; yahoos? probably; biking for another few hours, definitely.  What about the bike? I knew I could fix a flat, but the chain?  The derailleurs? An experienced lunatic/ adventure racer friend of mine once told me that his back derailleur came off waaaaay out ion the boonies and he was forced to field strip it down to a single speed.  Did I know how to do that? Extremely doubtful, even in theory it was questionable.  Gear monkey I’m not.

Perhaps a dozen or more miles from anyone and no way to call out, if the machine failed me now I would very much be left having to abandon it and hoof it out, unable to run (damn PCL).  This makes everything else much less certain — without the speed that the wheels afford, the animals and the locals turn into unpredictable beasts and characters from Deliverance.  Like a forest after sunset, all the shadows in my mind become potential nightmares and violence, everything tame turns feral.  I pedal faster, doubly cognizant of the fact that this might cause a more serious problem if I wipe out.  I ride the edge of anxiety and try to race it out.

And then, in the midst of all of this mental yammering and emotional/ existential stomach churning, it all settles down, almost of its own accord. I seem to inherently know that there’s nothing that I can do about any of it, that the best I can do is acknowledge my situation and keep going.

Then the clouds part and I see the sky for all its gorgeous blue; stuck in my head, I had no idea.  My legs are strong; nature is all around me, the simple wind and a dozen insects taking off in front of me, the dry heat of the day; my vitality is tangible.  It sounds ridiculous (cliche?), but I am alive and can feel it in the most real way. My heart, only just now beating from fear, softly slows and swells.

*

In Salomon Running’s poignant film ‘Of fells and hills’, Rickey Gates concludes his meditative narrative on the culture of hill running in Great Britain by expressing his envy for the people who live at the feet of this rolling landscape by saying “In the end, I think a single mountain range is enough exploration for an entire lifetime”.  Monastics of all kinds have always believed this; the word ‘monastery’ literally means ‘a place for doing something alone’, understanding that it is with ourselves that we come in touch with the world.  Few know this as well as the Jesuits, who built their practices on intellectual development and really wrestling with issues of faith and belief; just listen to what Gerard Manley Hopkins says about these fells and hills:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all

Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Translation?

The mind is one heavy, scary place, though

people who don’t think about anything don’t think

so.  And our short lives don’t really give us time to deal

all that well either. Hey, the irony,

gross though it is, is that our comfort comes when all hell breaks loose: get to it then

because this is all we get, every friggin day.

Here, one more story.

Having decided to sit in meditation under the bodhi tree until he attains insight, Siddhartha Guatama (who was soon to become the Buddha) is confronted by Mara, the ultimate demon of humanity whose sole purpose it is to keep us from waking up to our own immediate sense of the present.  These days we might call him The Interwebs, or just General Media. At first, he shows Sid beautiful women who tempt him to stop meditating and get it on with them instead; nah, says our man, think I’ll just hang out here with my breath for a bit.  Next, Mara vaults an assault of arrows at Siddhartha, but as he unflinchingly sits there, cool as a cucumber, refusing to accept the fear that they are meant to instill as being real, they turn to flowers and fall at his feet. Not ready to give up, Mara shows Siddhartha his own corpse, decaying away and then, finally, he pulls out the big guns, saddles up beside our man and says ‘this is stupid, dude. What are you doing here? Don’t you have something else you should be doing?  Life is SHORT, man! Shouldn’t you be living, eating chocolate bars or hanging with the family or something?  This is pointless. You’re shirking your duties and responsibilities, you know.’

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Right there, Sid turns to Mara and says “there is nothing but this moment right here and this is what I am doing” and, with that, he awakens! Mara, it’s said, continued to come back and try and irk Buddha with bouts of restlessness, aversion, craving, sleepiness and skeptical doubt, but our man was too sly for those old tricks and he’d catch sight of Mara slinking around in the shadows, like a raccoon behind a tree pretending to be a bear, and say “I see you, Mara”. Acknowledgement is our honesty, bravery holds us to the course.

*

My wife bought me a Road ID for Father’s Day last year.  On it is my name, birthdate, phone number, her name, and her phone number.  Like a medical alert bracelet, the idea is that is speaks for you when you can’t.  It is, in no uncertain or blindly symbolic way, my connection to the familiar, to my home.  ‘It’s because you’re always getting lost,’ she said; I’m a bit of a smart ass though and so I replied, ‘yeah, but that’s where I find myself so often.’ ‘Right’, she said, ‘and this will bring you back to us.’

I’m sure that it’s a pain to be married to someone like me — I’m impulsive in a calculated way, dedicated to pushing out against my own boundaries, and enthusiastically unconventional in my sense of fun.  I run ultradistance trail races through the mountains and forests for kicks and, quite literally, can’t go for a bike ride that’s less than three hours. I often get lost.  I’m a bit of a danger to myself in my unbridled love for doing exciting things outdoors and mercurial in almost every aspect of my personal and professional lives.  But — and this, I’m convinced, is why she likes me — I choose to be this way on purpose and am fully committed. I thrive off of my own love of life and do everything I can to be infectious about it.  I hear the myths, want to live them for myself, and then want to pass the story along so that, hopefully, other folks will catch the fever too.  Isn’t that what we’ve always done?

See, this isn’t my story, it’s our story and all you need is gumption and a good pair of shoes… but like that other beautiful game, even the shoes are optional.

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Turn left/ leave a trail

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I’m not buying a new bike; or, today I’m not buying a new bike.  No, I’m definitely not buying a new bike today. Regardless of the 75k Gravel Grinder coming right up and all those shiny red and orange or mat black cyclocross demons staring down my gunmetal green 29er, and despite this rush of summer that seemed to break out like all the valkyries at once to a Led Zepplin soundtrack pounding down from on high and turning all of us back into our best and most primal selves, hungry for adventure while the sun lasts like it’s our last.  It’s a season of seemingly endless days and perfection busting from every vista and the energy that may have started the universe and most definitely fuels massive run-on sentences like ribbons of dirt roads and I am still not buying a new bike today.

No.  Today I’m going to take a breath.

Today I’m taking a breath and this because it is Emerson’s birthday and I know what he would’ve done.  Our man of civil rights and deep sensitivity towards natures human and forested who implored us to stay on our own righteous courses, who urged us to “not go where the path may lead, [but] go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” would have told me to just take a breath. Cyclists and runners, hikers and climbers and jumpers know this as well as any other artist — that to push into the unknown willingly you can’t just be brave (that’s when folks get killed, or worse), you must also have the health of the pack coming behind you at heart, and that requires some respect of self and otherwise.

And so today I ended up some 50k south of where I live and smack in the middle of where I grew up by mid-morning and dying for coffee.  I did exactly as you’d expect, as any good and self-respecting dust covered cyclist would do — I stopped at a gas station, leaned the whip against the staircase and saddled up to the counter inside to buy what I was sure was going to be a disgusting cup of luke warm, several-hours-old-sludge.  (As a brief aside — good thing I did, as the lady behind the counter told me that my route was closed because ‘gawd, them boys been out there all hours on their ATVs tearing the place up!’ Moral: talk to the locals, they know what’s what.)

Outside, in the boiling sun, I sit down on the stoop and have a look.  Not much going on:  there’s a couple of good ol’ boys sitting in their truck smoking (possibly complaining about their Friday night ATV fun being spoiled and cooking up new plans), an elderly lady walking down the sidewalk (or maybe she’s the yahoo… one never knows), and a semi-abandoned train station.  The fields nearby are full of dandelions and the river’s running fast.  I walk over to the garbage can, fully intending to guzzle as much of this hot, horrid coffee as I can and then chuck it so I can get back on the ride.

But the gods of Whoa There Man and Not So Fast have other plans. I take a sip and somewhere between the bitter, scalding stuff hitting my tongue and the angle of the light touching off ‘just so’, my take on this day changes.  The town’s simple beauty comes into focus and I’m literally taken aback by the absurd wonder of it all — a warm day in the country, a free ride down virtually empty roads, fields of cows, the smooth machinations of time and physicality, and yes, this horrid cup of coffee. See, sometimes you have to ride far and hard to find something delicious and amazing and while I rode out there to see some landscape, what I came wheel to road up against was none other than the utter, shocking awesomeness of the plainly everyday.  The scared, Mircea Eliade once said, is the mundane and standing out here in the sun with this cup of deliciously horrible coffee, I’m pretty sure that’s why I ride a bike; because  I’ve never been one to look for epiphany handouts, I’d much rather charge them down myself.  Even if that means taking a bunch of wrong turns, even if it means riding the wrong ride, even if it means not knowing most of the time.  As a matter of fact, because of those things.

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Out in the country when I was a kid all we had were crappy ten speeds our folks bought at Canadian Tire and riding through the woods was damn hard.  We did it anyway, mind you, but it was usually short lived and downright heinous.  Mostly we talked about punk and metal and girls while we swatted at flies and pushed our bikes through the mud.  Later maybe we’d build jumps in the driveway.  Mostly we just rode the flat blacktop and talked, solving world problems and getting some growing up done.  In all that though — the cruddy rides, the friendship, the endless days and killer boredom of living in the boonies — we learned something very simple and outrageously important:  we learned to do-it-ourselves.  Real time DIY.

After a lengthy haul down a road I’ve never been on, I come to a ‘T’.  The sign in front of me says that this is the Whittaker Road.  I glance back and forth and recognize exactly nothing. ‘Never heard of the place’ I say to myself, whipping the phone out of the front pouch of my bag, ‘But Google has!’ I click it on, hit the internet app and… nothing.  No cell reception. Excellent.

I love moments like this.  See, while I know that we all long for adventure, for whatever our reasons — to escape, to be found, to face some facts or some demons — we never know when it’s really going to hit us.  That surprise, I’m pretty sure, is why we all keep coming back, keep moving forward, keep believing that despite all adversity, like Rocky said, it’s about “how much you can take and keep moving forward”.  Or better yet, as Muhammad Ali spit, it’s about the very real deal that “impossible is a dare”. Because in this world, life is too easy, too ready-made, and some of us simply have to DIY-it.

I looked up the road one way and then  the other.  There was no real discernible difference:  trees, road, sky.  I turned left.

Doing something for yourself brings you into the present moment the same way a big wipe out does; that is, it jams you into the dirt of what’s right in front of you but weren’t paying attention to.  Like good art, doing something for yourself demands your attention, asks questions, challenges the boundaries of what you think you know for certain. Riding down country roads with no real sense for where you are or where you might be heading not only heightens the experience, it makes for great stories afterwards and as I and my Canondale MTB bombed over the rolling hills of Unknown Sticks Town I knew perfectly well that one way or another I’d make it home, that I’d have a full belly at some point, instead of shoveling down energy bars, and that I’d tell my friends where that damned Whittaker Road goes.  Doing something for yourself, we all understand, is also doing it for others so that we might “leave a trail”.

The morning of the Gravel Grinder was rainy and as we all crammed in under the sponsor’s tent drinking horrible black coffee I told my story to a few friends.  We laughed together and clinked our paper cups ‘to adventure!’ Out in the parkinglot, my big tube bike lay beside the sleek cyclocross demons in all her glory.  Not once did I think that maybe I couldn’t afford to be in this tribe; bikes all get wet the same, no matter what they cost, and all the bikes grind the gravel regardless of whether to components match or not.  What is it they say about the fight in the dog?  Yeah, it’s really not about the bike, once the wheels start turning, it’s about the rider, doing it for themself, searching out the limits of strength and endurance.  I’m glad I didn’t buy a new bike today; today I’m just glad to be breathing.

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Tuck in: For the love of a trail dog

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Reading quotes on the internet about dogs is painful, though I’m not exactly sure why I expected  it to be anything else.  Call it optimism, call it a belief in humanity’s ability to say something true and touching.  To be real. Call it hope for some poetry.  But the pithy statements are just trite and all too often they’re polarized to boot, either emptily waxing about unconditional love of the beast, or glorifying/ bemoaning the ‘fight in the dog’ . The reality is just so much heavier.  It’s not so different really from asking people about kids ; that is, they’re either little darlings or  they’re snot-nosed brats.  Full stop.  And yes, having a dog is like having a kid and it’s okay for me to say that because I have three of those too and they all, very much, see our buddy Tuck, a mix breed Shepherd, as another member of the family.  How could we not?  He rescued us.

Rewind to September 1st, 2013: the family and I were out to brunch at a local diner, the phone rang, my wife answered and literally in the blink of an eye everything changed. Our house was on fire, we bolted out the door and drove as fast as we could back home.  Around the corner, I dropped off the kids at a neighbour’s so they wouldn’t have to see it and ran for the fire.  The scene was as surreal as you would expect — firefighters working the blaze into submission, a crowd gathered and talking in hushed tones, black smoke curling like an ugly industry up around the collapsing eves.  I yelled at them that this was my house and where was the dog?  Had they seen the dog?  A group of local kids caught wind and I sent them away — see if you can find her in the neighbourhood, I said. One firefighter passed the word to another and another, eventually the chief, a tall and strong woman with blackened hands, brought me out back.  Wrapped in a tarp, our dear friend laid out on the lawn.  I asked the chief what I should do.  ‘Bury her’, she said, ‘what was her name?’ Poette, I said, shocked and falling.  ‘Bury the Poette in the back yard’, she said.  And as they tamed the blaze and the smoke filled the sky, a kind neighbour and my father and oldest son and I did exactly that.

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For six months we lived in a house loaned to us by a family friend.  The kindness that surrounded us was remarkable and as we rebuilt our home we tried desperately to also rebuild the sense of security and wellness that a tight knit small family is made of.  But it was hard — we were still working and going to school and with what time was left it was a slow and arduous process to settle ourselves emotionally.  Building a house with planks and beams and wires and plans is easy — taking care of the delicate business of rebuttressing your life takes tact and strength, compassion and tenacity and love.  As the weeks went by things seemed to be healing, but…

Towards the middle of November, though my wife and I had discussed it and had come to the mutual conclusion that we should wait until we were back home, I started actively looking for a dog.  I dropped in on the local SPCA and checked out photos online.  Some days I dropped in on the pound and took one out for a walk.  Then one day, there he was.  I picked the kids up from school, went out with them, paid the folks their money and then told my wife.  Generally speaking, I don’t condone this kind of approach — a strong marriage is built on a solid foundation of mutual ideas and beliefs… but sometimes you just have to go with your gut.  Sometimes you know what’s needed far beyond anything that a reasonable decision can make sense of.

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And then, all of sudden, we were a family again.  Tuck wasn’t a replacement for Poette — I am 100% confident that he needed us as much as we needed him — but he certainly helped heal a deep wound.

It was right around that time that I started ramping up for my first 100k race and putting in some serious miles at seriously weird times of the day and night.  The place that we were staying in was right across the street from a beautiful green space in the centre of our town and Tuck and I started logging the miles.  Early morning snow days, late nights, long runs and sprints and hills hills hills.  I did my research to see if his kind of dog could handle that kind of mileage and all I ever got back were variations on ‘you’ll never run this dog down.’  And that’s a fact — in utter irony to his name, I simply cannot tucker him out.

More than just clocking the mileage though, we trade looking out for one another; he has taught me the real value of living in a pack.  When I was young I saw a neighbourhood dog chase down and clamp onto a young friend of mine and, quite literally, more or less pull the calf muscle out of his leg.  Turns out that the kid had been chucking rocks at the dog daily for some months on his way home off the bus, but needless to say that the whole thing scared the living bejesus out of me, so I have had to learn to love and trust dogs on my own.  And, in Tuck’s case, stand up for him — see, being the alpha is more than being the one in control, it’s being the one that can be stood behind, that the others come running for if the tides of the fight turn, and I have, on more than one occasion, inserted myself between Tuck and other dogs who were looking to have a go at him and physically pushed them aside.  That’s what dads do.  And he’s always on the lookout for me too, scanning the woods and watching for bears or coyotes or whatever else is in there.  Truly, even a country boy like me gets freaked in the forest at night; unless, that is, I have him with me.  Alone we are each vulnerable, but together we are a pack.

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It’s funny too, how people will come up to you and talk if you have a dog off leash in the woods.  They pet the dog and ask his name.  We exchange pleasantries and I am reminded that even though the world often seems filled with pain and violence and saccharine statements about immeasurable value, I believe humanity to be good.  It is true that atrocities and neglect and ignorance are far more rampant than makes any sense at all, but I have met far more people, from the person behind the counter of a corner store in New York to a doctor who’s there to deliver my child, that are kind and gentle and sincere than are truly malevolent.  Tuck isn’t just an excellent running mate, though having racked up some 6000 kms together he’s definitely that too, he is a compassionate and patient teacher.  He has taught me about optimism, he has shown me something touching and true about humanity.  He has shown me what it is to be real.  He has been a fast friend and fine poet.  In the world of trail running we often talk about how we don’t do it (just) to win races, but to become better people — and what irony, I need add, that a dog should teach me that most.

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