Do you remember that moment when you realized music was more than just music?
Can you pinpoint that infinitesimal, and yet life-changing moment, when art was no longer just a picture on a wall?
When you understood that stories make worlds, and break worlds?
That second when they first made your heart, and then ripped it in two?
When did you last love someone?
When did you last feel most alive?
This weekend I came second in a 10k race held at Shubie Park over in Dartmouth. I was sixth overall to finish in a time of 41:56. Although this was considerably slower than my last race, I can chalk it up to three things: the thick web of phlegm in my lungs; the hilly course; and the wind.
That morning the entire city was battered by a cruel and vengeful Aeolus.
I felt blown about. Like a whisper, half heard in the fall air.
But it didn’t matter.
For a while now, running has been the only that has made me feel truly alive.
Sometimes, I fear that I’ve become a shadow – a poor replica, forever lost in a back-lit cave.
But when I run, I am a shadow with a shadow.
I am real.
I am alive and I am okay.
Running reminds me that it’s not just a matter of being alive and being okay; it’s about taking every single thing that makes you alive and okay – the things that make your fingers itch and your heart ache and your knees weak and your arms shake – and saying: I see.
I see and I know and I love.
It reminds me of the stories and art and music that build my word.
I woke at 6 AM to the easy strains of my cellphone’s alarm and the cool darkness of an early east coast autumn.
Rufus and Simon – my mum’s two ragdoll cats – skittered into my room, eager to investigate my pre-dawn activities. Simon jumped on the bed and looked at me, his amber eyes still. Rufus mewled, rubbing his head against my leg.
I had laid out my race gear the night before – shirt, shorts, socks, bra, all stacked neatly on the chair in my bedroom. As I crept downstairs, I was careful to avoid the creakiest stair. I made it to the spare bathroom on tiptoe, where I brushed my teeth and washed my face. The last thing I wanted to do was wake my mum as I prepared for the day.
I am particular about my pre-race routine.
Clothing, face, hair, coffee, food, water.
It doesn’t matter how far or important the race – I find great comfort in this ritual.
Together with my cousin David – who was also running the race – I ate a bagel with peanut butter and watched as the rising sun softly kissed our backyard trees, leaving their leaves aglow in a golden green.
When mum woke she joined us, and we sat and joked about all-natural nut butters.
Before we left, she took this great photo of Dave and I:
As we drove out to the Musquodoboit Trailway, we listened to the CBC and shared with each other our favourite programs and hosts. We’re both big fans of As It Happens, This Is That, The Current and Day Six.
When we arrived, we picked up Dave’s race bib at the registration desk. Although the start line was splashed with sunshine, a tricky wind immediately cut through any lingering warmth we had carried with us from Dave’s truck.
For half an hour we joked and laughed and sipped water and used the porta-potties for the last time.
When the starting gun sounded, my feet were halfway numb.
I am always afraid of going out to fast. Time and again my need for speed has proven to be my Achilles’ heel, but today I decided to go for it.
And I’m glad that I did.
I ran a personal best of 41:03. I was the first woman and sixth overall.
I love running.
I love running purely and truly, and have written at length about this love.
But I also love to see others learn to love to run.
I love to see someone cross the finish line for the first time. See them marvel at their strength. Their resilience.
Revel in the depth of their heart.
In a brief moment, they are unrivaled amazement and awe.
Today was Dave’s first race, and he was extraordinary. When he first signed up he made a goal of finishing in less than one hour. He smashed that, completing the course in 58:18.
He told me prior to the start that he didn’t intend on doing any more races. This was pure bucket-list.
Less than one hour later?
I believe his words were something along the lines of, “I cannot wait to do that again.”
Before heading home to Halifax, we stopped at Martinique Beach.
Today, this stretch of the eastern shore seemed to burn extra bright.
A horizon of the sweetest blue, speckled with fat clouds. The brilliant sun.
White sand. Dunes that danced.
A fall air that burned our lungs and stung our cheeks.
And in that moment, I forgot everything: I forgot uncertainty and fear. I forgot that life can be unfairly underpinned by sickness and a suffocating sense of helplessness.
The east coast is humid as hell. The minute you walk outside, you are beset by a sticky, smoky, mug.
The coolness of our house is misleading. I am always sure that I am going to be cold during the first few minutes of my morning run. But that is nothing but a clever ruse on behalf of Nova Scotia Heating and the fact that we live in a very, very old home.
What I wouldn’t give for even a minute of respite from the oppressive exhalation that greets me as I turn to lock the front door. The world feels like an unwanted whisper from a strange man on a strange train.
Suddenly everything is too hot. Too close.
And my discomfort is palpable.
But it never stops me from running. If anything, it just makes me faster.
I have the mistaken belief that the quicker I run, the more wind resistance I might generate on my flushed and sweat-steamed face.
And while I have yet to see any rewards for my efforts, I keep trying.
Other than three days flattened by a brutal flu, I have run almost every day since coming to Nova Scotia.
I race about the different neighbourhoods of my adopted home. My favourite routes take me to Point Pleasant Park and up to the Citadel. I careen along the South End’s tree-dappled streets, dodging new students moving into their bachelor apartments and soccer moms walking their huskies and duck toller retrievers. I ignore the workers re-paving the road outside of the old military barracks, and sprint past the tourists taking photos of the clock tower.
I have always had a tendency to make up stories about the different people that I encounter on my daily adventures, and since moving to Halifax my internal narrative has delved to new depths.
That man on the corner? Oh, he’s waiting for his man on the inside. But where’s the drop? Where’s the microfilm? Is it up that tree? Or has it been stashed around the corner, behind the fire hydrant? And is that even a real arm brace? Or is it a cleverly disguised weapon?
By the time that I’ve figured out his entire backstory (he’s on his way to meet an ex-CIA operative who he has been trying to get out of the game but who keeps getting dragged back in because of that one shady incident in Dubai twelve years ago), I am half way home.
But not before I espy the woman who just returned from reuniting with her estranged brother whom everyone thought had died in that tragic ocean kayaking accident. It just turned out that he owed money to a man from Havana and had to disappear for a couple of years. She was afraid to tell him that she had sold all of his belongings to put herself through a two-year pottery course, but he was just happy to see her. She told him that she would help him out with the money she makes from her artisan salt shaker business.
Or something to that effect.
The more I make up stories about the people I see, the more it astounds me that anyone can really purport to know anything about anyone.
I am currently reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s doomed expedition in search of the legendary, and always elusive Northwest Passage. It is engrossing and horrifying and I find myself completely sucked in by Simmons’ reimagining of what it was like to be a crew member of the HMS Erebus or Terror.
Talking to Marc the other night, I exclaimed, “My God, Franklin was so dumb. I cannot believe what a loser he was.”
To which Marc very kindly reminded me that I was in fact reading a work of fiction, and we would be hard pressed to really know what anyone was like on that expedition, what with everyone having frozen to death in the barren wasteland of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.
I quickly acquiesced that he was right.
But I remained rankled. It just seems too true to let it go.
Since August of 2014 they have been my consummate companions, joining me on every run, race, bike ride, and hike.
And I love them.
I bought them in response to the death my last pair, which, despite an absolutely valiant effort, died a gruesome death the second time around doing Tough Mudder (otherwise known as Tough Mudder II: Tough Mudderer).
However, I didn’t want to buy them. I had just read Born to Run and was a new student to the school of thought that one should never buy new running shoes unless absolutely necessary.
Gone were (and still are) my days of thinking that there is some arbitrary six-month expiration date on shoes. I wanted to wait as long as possible to take the plunge.
So, reluctant as I was to purchase anything new, I started using a pair of Marc’s old shoes instead. They were a little too large and ugly as hell, but I was steadfast in my commitment to make them work. I only threw in the towel on them after completely shredding my right leg on a hike in Hawaii. They had absolutely zero tread, and after a solid two hours of slipping and sliding all over an incredibly treacherous trail, I lost my footing and cut myself badly on an old, rusted water main.
Sitting there in the wilds of the Hawaiian jungle, as Marc and our friends poured water over my wounds, I tried to remember the last time I received a tetanus shot, and patiently waited for the lock jaw to set in.
When I got home I drove to SportChek and bought shoes.
My new Asics were immediately magic. They fit my feet perfectly and took no time to break in.
At first I lamented their muted colour palette, wishing that I could rock the hot pinks and flashy neon so in vogue amongst other runners. But I quickly came to appreciate their simplicity. I often thought this as one of the reasons they were so perfect a bridge between my legs and where my legs ached to go.
For the entire fall of 2014, I woke up at 5:30 am to run the New Westminster waterfront. Greeting the sleepy sun, I would watch as mountainscapes transformed from Mount Doom to Mount Baker and I would marvel at a sky that was both mottled blue and cherry rust.
That November, my shoes carried me to my very first race victory when I won the Boundary Bay Half-Marathon. They helped me push through when, after eighteen kilometers of headwinds and incredibly tight hips, everything in my being was telling me that I should just quit and never run ever again. Instead, they allowed my feet to keep propelling me forward, and quieted the negative refrain inside of my head.
That following January, they were there again when I placed fourth in the Chilly Chase Half-Marathon. My Little Sister Melissa came out to cheer me on, and she spent the morning with Marc and his parents, as they chilly-chased me around False Creek and Stanley Park.
In April 2015, I completed a long-standing life goal and ran the Hapalua Half-Marathon in Waikiki. My shoes were up with me at 4:30am as I trekked to the start line and nervously prepped for a 6:30am start. They were there as I poured cup after cup of water over my head in an attempt to cool myself against the ever-worsening heat of the day. They were there as the never ending hill between kilometers fourteen and nineteen ate my legs and left me for dead. They were there as I sprinted across the finish line and cried under the comforting shade of a nearby banyan tree.
They were there when I ran my very first trail race last June and placed third.
My shoes have been left at Sunshine Coast cabins and they have stunk up gym lockers. They have run in Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park and along the Toronto waterfront. They’ve bounded up steep forested trails and pounded long stretches of unforgiving pavement.
They have dried out over heating grates and in the searing sunshine. They have ground up Grouse Mountain and adventured all around Brooklyn.
This year they ran with me almost every day from January to May, as I trained for what would come to be the hardest thing I have ever done. They carried me 42.2 kilometers in 3:35: from Queen Elizabeth Park, to UBC, to Stanley Park, to downtown Vancouver. They watched as I flew, and as I broke, and as I broke through.
I really did think that I would throw out my shoes after the marathon.
My friend John urged me to get rid of them. A committed distance athlete himself, he was flabbergasted to know that I was refusing to part with them.
I calculated the rough number of kilometers I had completed with my shoes strapped to my feet.
Probably around 4,000 I wrote.
Get new shoes, was his reply.
But I didn’t. I kept running and training and pretending I couldn’t smell them on days when it rained.
Only this weekend, I finally acquiesced.
I ran a fifteen kilometer trail race in an absolute torrential downpour. My shoes, already hanging on by a thread, weren’t coming back from that morning’s trifecta of water, dirt, and no discernible and immediate drying method.
As a last gift to me, my shoes helped me place third in the race. Perhaps cognizant of their imminent demise, they gave me all that they had, one last time.
And I’d like to thank them for this. Thank them for all that they have given me over their almost two-year tenure in my life. For all of the love, grit, determination, happiness, incredulity, strength, and awe.
So remember last weekend, when I wrote about running in Lynn Park and how I almost destroyed myself over the course of my route?
Well, today it actually happened. I absolutely rocked myself about seven kilometers into a twelve kilometer run.
I was careening along a long, gravel straightaway and stubbed my right foot on the tip of an unseen rock. From this point, I launched myself right into a baseball slide (arms first), straight across the pathway.
I hate falling.
For all of the usual reason, yes: it hurts, it’s embarrassing, it totally messes up your plans, and it makes bathing and clothing yourself equal parts excruciating and ridiculous for days on end.
But what I hate the most about falling is that strange nebulous time frame between the actual trip, and the moment you make contact with the ground. Your conscious, rational self knows that a connection with the earth is imminent, and yet, you still try to think of all of the ways you could stop it from happening. And then, right before impact, you resign yourself to your fate, and brace for the carnage.
After coming to a complete rest, I always try give myself a moment to take stock and check for bad cuts and injuries before getting to my feet, because I always just want to keep running and get away from the crash site as quickly as possible. Today, my adrenaline was going like crazy, and it’s at times like this that I have to be particularly careful not to start again too quickly.
I was also pretty angry with myself for making such a simple mistake, and my gut reaction was to beat it out of there and just get on with completing my run. But noticing a large stream of blood pooling in the palm of my left hand, I thought it better to be safe than sorry, so I ran back to the park’s entrance and washed my wounds at one of the water stations.
A small part of me contemplated just running back to my car and heading home, but most of me couldn’t fathom not finishing what I had set out to accomplish. So, with my cuts stinging like crazy from the antiseptic handfoam I got from the closest outhouse, I ran back to the route and finished.
It wasn’t until I was actually driving home that the extent of my cuts and scrapes really came to the fore. They stung. Stung like mad.
I made a quick pit stop at London Drugs to stock up on Epsom salts and Haribo, and upon my arrival at home, booked it straight into the bathtub.
For the next hour I sat, soaking my wounds, eating candy and listening to Hari Kondabolu stand-up shows.
Not the worst way to spend a Sunday morning, but good grief, next time I’ll elect to do it without having to gently scrape the dirt from my bleeding elbows.
(That’s more of a Tuesday morning chore.)
Everyone has silly little things that made them smile. For instance, I love recognizing Vancouver in movies and television shows. I always get butterflies when people address me by name in conversation – whether face to face, over the telephone, or via text. And I will always, always love a song that has some kind of hand-clap section or chorus.
It’s an inevitable truth of life, and there is nothing to be done. I have resigned myself to this fate.
So you can of course understand why I currently have this song on constant repeat, much to the chagrin of every human within earshot of my musical devices.
I just cannot help it. It’s so darn catchy and it just makes me want to dance about the world, nonstop forever.
(My cat, unfortunately, was very unimpressed by this yesterday, and staunchly refused to join in.)
Some others that I enjoy:
Where It’s At (Beck)
Beck was one of my very first music loves. I asked for, and received Mellow Gold for my 11th birthday but I loved Odelay even more, because of this song.
Cecelia (Simon and Garfunkel)
It is always, always summer whenever I hear this opening refrain.
Women’s Realm (Belle and Sebastian)
This band. Goodness, this band.
I have a recurring dream – or nightmare, I suppose – where I am caught outside wearing nothing but a t-shirt.
No underwear. No shoes. Nothing.
It’s just me, my t-shirt, and the elements. I find myself rooted to the ground in a busy town square or being jostled about by the teeming crowd of an emptying lecture hall. It’s the weirdest experience, trying desperately to both cover myself and creep away without anyone noticing.
What’s even weirder is that it’s exactly the same – the panic, the fear, the discomfort – every time.
I don’t dream this dream as often as the one where all of my teeth are falling out, nor do I find it as terrifying as the one where I am two seconds away from falling off of the chair lift, but nevertheless, it has firmly ensconced itself into my personal narrative and never fails to leave me shaken up.
Because, let’s face it. Nudity is a pretty weird thing.
But the fact that we clothe ourselves all of the time, even when we are alone, can seem equally as weird. Knowing that we are all just a bunch of penises and vaginas, cleverly hidden away, traipsing about the planet is an idea I rarely give time to, but find utterly bizarre when I do.
Sometimes when I was a pre-teen, I would take moments and try to visualize all of the adults, outside of my family, naked. I would try to imagine them having sex, or being “sexy”.
It was both strange and hard, and the moment was always fleeting. (Insert joke here about the parallels between this exercise and the first time I found myself naked with a boy.)
I am not exactly sure that the answer is, nor what exactly it is that I am looking in terms of this dream, or my ideas on nakedness and nudity. I think, for me, the most important thing is identifying my hang-ups – hang-ups I am sure shared by many – around being nude, about being naked (literally and metaphorically), and the overall social expectations and politicization of what it means to be naked (also literally and metaphorically).
My friend Emma Cooper, who is a local comedian and artist has said that when comes to nudity, “Men are not allowed to be vulnerable, and women are not allowed to be sexual.”
Whenever I think about this statement it hits me like a sack of bricks, and is an idea that I remain sensitive to, and cognizant of whenever it is that I find myself thinking about these things.
Now if only I had something to help me, during those moments of peak vulnerability, when I’m standing in that town square.