You’re not going to get a better night than this, not ever, because here we are an hour before sunset and the sun really will have to set tonight, we’ll watch it slip behind the high school and send the last of its light glancing off the new architecture, the one-way panes and the marble, while the Garry oaks look painted, not moving at all, and spectators walk around in t-shirts with light sweaters tied round their waists. Flags are slumped around their poles bloody exhausted. Pollen floats above lane 8 of the track, no idea where it came from, it’s not arriving by any kind of a breeze. Tomorrow there'll be a supermoon total lunar eclipse. Someone exits a car and yanks a fold-out table out of the trunk. Two parking spots over Chris Kelsall, the man who is Athletics Illustrated, rummages in the back seat for a couple of cameras. A skinny guy in a yellow t-shirt arrives with a 6-pack of some pineapple flavoured Jamaican beer, and starts to do a dynamic set of exercises. A stockier guy in a paler yellow tee arrives with a sixer of Shocktop in one hand, his girlfriend’s hand in the other.

Kelsall fires up one of his video cameras and asks me what I’m hoping for tonight. What’s my A goal. I look up from where I’m tying my shoes on the track. God man, I don’t know. I want a p.b. as a minimum. I’d love to break 5:00 but I’ve some good miles in my legs this week, and half the UVIC Vikes cross-country workout from this morning. This could be great. It could be a disaster. And Chris calls me on it. Already building in excuses. It’s true, if I’m going to race this thing I just need to race it. If I’m going to go through the effort of setting aside a night for a beer mile, if I’m going to invite cameras and spectators, I just need to shut my yaw and run with whatever brio I have.

We’ve assigned a handler to each runner, to each of me, Peter Corrigan (ranked sixth in Canada in the 5000m this year) and Trevor O’Brien, a former 3:41 1500m man. The handlers will grab our empty beer bottles and set them on the table so that we can measure how much remains. Updated Kingston rules allow a generous 1 oz per beer.

There’s never really any fanfare for these events. Most races aren’t fully committed to until the morning of the race, and sometimes only a couple of hours before the start. Even then, maybe you’ll show up to the track and there’ll be a kids soccer game on the infield, or a mum with her pram strolling the outside lane. Maybe there’ll be some maintenance underway, or the cops’ll have gotten wind of it and you’ll walk through the gate and just have to keep walking, one loop like that’s your purpose and then you’re back at the car. There’s never any guarantee it’ll run, and that’s one of the warnings you have to give potential spectators, too, that they may show up for nothing more than a bit of gossip. You hope it’ll run, because once you’ve made the final decision and you’ve purchased the beer there’s a momentum that takes hold. There’s an electricity to it, and now you desperately want to do it, but there’s a real possibility you’ll have to quell this desire and go home and drink alone.

But tonight there are no hitches. If the cops are on hand they’re watching keenly, too, hoping for something special. There actually are a couple of mums, their kids just graduated out of prams, and they’re watching too. With all the construction around the school right now the only way to cross the grounds is through the track, and even some random passersby have stopped to watch. This is what I mean about the electricity. There’s a density about it, like the density of a black hole, and you feel sucked toward it without even knowing what’s happening, and even though nothing is underway as of yet.

Then suddenly we are underway. The beers materialize on the table, four each, and the three racers are on the line. We grab one of our beers and bring it close to our lips, our left hands curled around the cap ready to twist. We get an On Your Marks, and then Go.

I’m through the exchange zone in 6.2 seconds. It’s actually slow for me, compared to my practices at home. I figure I can be out in about 5.2 but on the track here it doesn’t feel smooth. I’m surprised later to see that it was as fast as 6.2. Honestly the beer mile has become a technical exercise for me. The clock starts when you're standing at the true mile start 9m from the finish, and in the exchange we have to grab our beers, open them, drink them, and cross the finish line. I want to know how fast I can navigate these 9 meters. This is purely oiling everything that moves, for me. It’s the way I used to practice three-point shots, or spot kicks. You do and do and do until the neural pathways are laid down, until you just can’t miss, anymore than you could accidentally wander off the oft travelled woodsy path into dense underbrush. You’d have to try to miss. Not that I’m sitting at home drinking and drinking, not that I’m doing that, but I practice with water from a beer bottle. I do do this. Anyway, here we are on this eclipse eve and I’m out and running, and I can hear footsteps behind me which I assume are Peter’s since I’ve spent enough nights at the pub with O’Brien to know that while he's the running pride of tiny Paradise, Newfoundland, he’d be a bit of a drinking embarrassment to the Newfs in general, at least when it comes to speed. My first lap of the track is 66.2 and whoever’s behind me, which is indeed Peter although the Newf beat him off the line, has closed so that he’s only about a second behind me at the transition. A transition I burn through. 6.5 seconds, which means I’m clear. This is the first beer mile for Trevor and Peter, and so while Peter comes into the first exchange feeling good about his chances, he hasn’t ever had to drink after running a hard 400m. I was 66.2 for that first lap, so he must have been 61 or 62, which means he doesn’t really have a lot of spare oxygen with which to hold his breath while he drinks. And so yes, I’m through the exchange in 6.5 and from that point on it’s a time trial.

Here the race actually gets kind of boring. I don’t hear any splits, not a single one, so I have no idea what kind of pace I’m on. I could be challenging Lewis’s world record, or I could be running a personal worst, though I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in the middle. When I do the autopsy later I see I ran 69.6 for my second lap, 6.9 for my third beer exchange, 70.2 for my third lap. Boring. Dead steady, and no drama. When I come into the exchange for my final beer the Newf is sitting on the ground drinking his third. He ran 2:46 for an 800m beer time trial a couple of nights before but this is more volume than he’s used to, and he’s sitting on the rubber trying to figure out how to finish up the third beer, which he doesn’t. After my 6.9 final exchange he drops his half-full beer and bolts, thinking he might be able to help me on my final lap. He flies past me and I can’t attach. He decelerates and still I can’t attach. I have nothing left. Maybe it was yesterday’s hill sprints, or this morning’s part xc workout, or some big miles earlier in the week. Maybe it’s just how I’ll always run a mile as a pure distance runner, slow and dying. I can’t attach and I feel my form letting go, but I tuck my head and bury myself with a 68.8 final 400m.

And I still don’t know what I’ve run. I ask someone with a watch but they don’t know. The next person I ask says 5:01. Someone else says 5:02 and another says 5:00. Later it’s confirmed as 5:01.2, a super master’s world record and the 6th all-time performer. The current world record is Lewis’ scintillate 4:55.78.



I stared out the window of the 17th room on the 17th floor of the Hyatt, downtown Vancouver, the 7:00 a.m. sun glancing off a taller nearby building, my headphones stuffed in my ears. Stared at the cloudless contrailed sky and the swimming pool a swan's dive beneath me, and listened to an Enigma song. I inverted into a headstand and stayed up for about a minute. Sunday morning, April 19. Race morning. I flipped out of my headstand and pulled things out of my bag looking for something I could warm up in. Anything. A shirt with sleeves or even shoulders, shorts that didn't expose my upper thigh, but I'd forgotten all of it. I had my racing flats, split shorts, and my singlet with my number already attached. I also had a cotton t-shirt from my race package, which fit. A rare and fortunate warm April morning on the west coast. Slipped my singlet over my torso. Cotton race-issued t-shirt over that. Drank a small glass of water. Rode the elevator down 17 floors and went outside and started jogging.

Eleven nights of sweating through sheets heading into the race. Nights of headaches and a dry cough that sometimes escalated into dry-heaving. I wasn't feeling bad during the days, but the nights were awful. I wasn't sure I would race.

But races always give something back. There are moments we love, even on our worst days. Moments when we actually do notice the scenery on a scenic course, or when our bodies express their perfect cadence, perhaps only for a few seconds but those are the seconds we remember. And so it was I took the ferry to Vancouver for the Sun Run.

The race itself was uneventful. Start at a pace we think we can hold and let attrition wage its war against the pack, the slow squeezing of muscles and lungs, heart and mind. The group I was in hit 5km in 16:00. With 1km remaining Oliver Utting surged hard, and by the finish had put 10 seconds on me to claim the master's title. I was second master in 31:50. This was good, given how I'd been feeling coming in. Most of the race felt sustainable, and I only lacked power near the end.

A week later, the Times Colonist 10km in Victoria. This was the race I was most anxious about. The start is about 1km from my place and I knew a lot of people who'd be out either racing or spectating. If the Sun Run had been a disaster I'd have pretended the local race was never on my calendar. I'd have picked up a Fantastico coffee on my way down to cheering. But I felt good. I felt optimistic, and the truth is I love racing. Plus I wanted to try the new adidas Takumi Sen flat. This Japanese engineered 5.9 oz rapturous thing.

Well, and I'd made a deal with a yogi: I'd come to yoga if she ran the race. I couldn't very well not run myself.

The guy I had to beat for the master's title was Philip Samoei from Kenya. He started in my pack but bolted around 3km and built up a bit of a lead on me by halfway. Not a huge lead, maybe 10 seconds, but he looked strong. I stung my lungs over the next  couple of kilometres, up the hill from the cemetery and past the Terry Fox statue, and still I couldn't close the gap, and ahead Philip had caught another Kenyan. I figured they'd work together to the finish; that they'd stay clear. But actually I was feeling pretty good. Burning lungs, sure, but I didn't feel like I needed to slow down and so I kept pushing which eventually paid off. I caught both Philip and the other guy by 8km. There's a short and often decisive hill with a mile remaining. I ran as hard as I could up that and got the gap I needed, and stayed clear to the finish. 31:36, my fastest on this course in a few years.

After these two 10kms I went back to one of my favourite races on the calendar, the Whistler Half Marathon (and 10km). You're not going there for a fast time. You run Whistler because Dave Clarke puts on an incredible event, and you run for the scenery, and here is one of those races during which I actually do notice my surroundings. This course is arresting.

Many courses use scenic as a euphemism for hilly. This one could use hilly as a euphemism for the hors-catégorie it actually is.

I brought the Adidas Takumi Sen flat, having adored them in the TC. If they felt good for a full half marathon they'd be my new every race shoes.

My main competition was Arya, a 1h07' collegiate from Oklahoma who bussed over from Vancouver where he was visiting his Grandma. It's still a relatively small race and all the fast guys were in their track seasons, and so it was Arya and I found ourselves alone in front after three kilometres. We ran side-by-side to 10km and then he tucked in behind me, which made me think he didn't have the bit. I worked the uphill at 14km and he started falling back, so I pressured him a bit more and it sent me clear. Whenever I checked behind on a straight, though, I could see him coming around the last bend. I hadn't finished my past few half marathons with any verve, but I felt strong in this one and I don't think any small part of that was the yoga I'd been practicing for (at that point) five weeks. I wasn't feeling the usual late-race tightness through my hips. I felt like I was popping off the ground better. By some alchemy of these new racing flats and my yoga, I was feeling good. 

I've always kind of railed against yoga for runners. There's a positive correlation between tightness and running speed. I also think many runners bring their competitive mindset into the practice, which is a mistake. We push when we shouldn't push, push when we should be relaxing into a posture, breathing into a posture, breathing into change instead of fighting for it. We compare ourselves to someone on the next mat. We want to see improvements and get in a good workout.

But this isn't the yoga practice. We should be looking for small increases in range of motion. Eliminating restrictions. The yoga I do uses the breath itself as the practice, and stretching supports the breath. It's a moving meditation. We breathe through an hour of stretches, then meditate for 20 minutes. Sometimes I feel sprung the next day and my legs have no energy, but in two days' time I feel great. I'm balancing muscle tension. Yoga reduces it, and a short stimulus like strides increases it. An ice bath increases it. If I'm racing on a Sunday, my last yoga practice will be on the Thursday.

And so I came into the last kilometre of Whistler with a lead of about a minute, and I kicked home well. 1h11' which I think would put me under 1h09' on a flatter course, better than I'd raced in two years.

Next up is the Victoria half marathon on October 11, and then I'll be switching to 1500m training and heading back to the Beer Mile World Championships in Austin on December 01. Trying for a sub-5:00.

Beer Mile World Classic

I take the MUNI to Civic Center and march the long underground with my beer in a small cooler, hand-held like a briefcase so it doesn’t shake. Four Amsterdam Blondes, precious cargo, get a sticker. Long clacking strides through the corridor beneath the city like I’m on assignment. Up the stairs into the blazing San Francisco sun. I’m headed to meet the rest of the Canadian Beer Mile team at host Konrad’s; Lewis, Phil and Jeff, and from there we’ll take an Uber to Treasure Island and the race site. We sit in Konrad’s two-bedroom and pass an hour watching Friends reruns. Rachel just found out Ross loves her, but he's now in China and when he returns he has a new girlfriend, and I'm still sad watching it even though two decades have passed since it first aired.

I haven’t seen the race course, so Lewis describes one of the corners to me, then we practice walking around a corner in the apartment while chugging water from a beer bottle. Is it really a 90 degree turn? Lewis tells me it is. And there’s grass and sand and a curb we need to navigate each lap. When we arrive at the site we discover there are also 25mph winds, and they don’t die.

What kind of messing with the formcharts would have to happen for us to beat the USA? This is the question we consider once we’re out of the car, beer in hand, ice melting and soaking the back of the Uber’s trunk. They’re the favourites, the Americans. With three to count and only three Australians racing, and one of those injured and fighting a cold, we’re pretty sure we will be ahead of them. But the US team. Nielson, the first man under 5:00 and he’s looking hale and determined. At the party the previous night he told us yes, he’s fitter than when he ran 4:57. Cunningham, a 5:07 guy (and 3:59 straight miler), second at the Beer Mile World Championships in Austin last December. Anderson, who ran 5:05 two weeks ago and finished fourth in Austin. Michael Johnson just ran 5:11. AJ Acosta, a 3:53 open miler with unknown beer mile potential.

In Australia the betting odds are released. I’m 21.00 and seeded 7th. At first blush I'm actually happy about it, but then I look more closely and see I'm pretty much tied for last. I haven't raced a beer mile since December, and boys are running fast, so they can't really give me better odds. Still. My best time is 5:09 and my worst time is 5:21. I'm consistent and think I can move up a couple of spots on race day. There'll be a few who have bad days. There's no way I'll make an impression on the top three, though. Aussie Josh Harris is the favourite, followed by Neilson and Lewis Kent. But who would bet against Lewis or Josh? On August 7th Josh broke the world record, and later the same day Lewis claimed it with his still standing 4:55. The two of them have been the most consistent and quickest beer milers of all-time. Neilson, though. He ran 4:57 in 2014 and hasn’t run one since, nor does it appear he has even raced a non-beer event. He’s the Salinger of our guild. One blazing race of brilliance, and where’d he go? Until today. Bearded and ready for his first public beer mile.

I’d estimate this course is 10 - 12 seconds slower than a track. It was certified by one of the world’s top certifiers, so it’s accurate, I saw the signature. But really. Grass, grates, sand, a curb? Organizers John Markell and Nick MacFalls contacted over 40 venues and nobody would allow them to host the event. Then Treasure Island agreed. Like the Beer Mile World Championships last December, these guys created a show despite not securing their ideal location. Fantastic organization, fantastic work pulling off this event. Look over the water at the downtown San Francisco skyline, look at the way the setting sun flares the Bay Bridge. Palm trees and banners, and even five feet tall posters of six of the athletes, and this crowd. Let’s forget race times. There's a title on the line. Let’s just race.

They line us up halfway down the finishing straight and call us forward individually, starting with the Canadians. We’d requested Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World as our team song, but the sound system has been turned off and it’s just the announcer's voice we hear echoing down the parking lot and then out over the water, the echoes becoming faint. A bit of crowd cheering. Lewis the world record holder is introduced first. He’s a tall man, looking more like Craig Mottram every time I see him. Tall with an easy looking cadence. When they call his name his powerful stride torques and adducts on the pavement and it looks like the pavement is tearing away, not the carbon rubber sole of his shoes. The crowd is a leaning frenzy of arms wanting to touch the world record holder, and the “White Horse of Ontario” high-fives them on his way to the start line. I’m up next. “His age, I kid you not, is unknown!” the announcer’s voice is breaking into the mic. “Racing since the time you were born, the old gastric ghost!”. Phil “favourite bar is the Ceeps” Parrot-Migas, and Jeff “the beard many love to luxuriate over” Mountjoy round out the Canadian team. The Australians Josh “Harry” Harris and Kevin Craigie are introduced without fuss. They reach Blanchy from Australia, and the guys starts walking, no joke, and for a moment I think he’s just going to stroll the entire way, and it’s comical, but then he rips off his Aussie overcoat and is wearing bum huggers, green and far too tight for any man. With the crowd in hysterics he starts jogging.

Finally the Americans are introduced and the music finds juice. Blur 2 thumps and now the atmosphere has ignited as they call up the home team. Chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!" Brian “the Franchise” Anderson, AJ Acosta the Hayward Helium, and the last man to the line, the big American hope, James “the Beast” Neilson. He’s drinking Budweiser from a can which must be 20 degrees celsius by now, sitting outside all day, and I don’t know how he can drink something so warm. Before the race his wife Mimi saw me pulling my Amsterdam Blondes from a cooler. She raised her eyebrows surprised and said “James doesn’t do that.” and I wondered if she was trying to plant seeds of doubt, not that I’m the guy he needs to worry about because I think Josh and Lewis will give him all he can handle. But still. I feel like he’s handicapping himself, but maybe he’s just that good.

The three big men get out fast. Lewis is straight to the front, followed by Josh and Neilson. I get out in fifth and am fourth coming into the first exchange. By the end of beer two Lewis already has the jump on the field and Neilson tries once and Josh tries once to bring him back but neither close. Neilson is already struggling on lap two. His beer is actually foamy, too warm. I’d heard the same complaint from some of the others in the earlier heats, but Neilson’s really isn’t landing well and he isn’t running well either. It’s not his day.

After the third beer Lewis’ lead is unassailable and Neilson is lagging. "Beast, please, for the love of country run him down!" shouts the announcer but he only falls further behind. Josh is in second but his beer is clawing at him. He slows down to avoid vomiting. I move past him, and Brian moves from fourth past both of us, so that at the end of the third lap Lewis is going to win unless something bizarre happens, and I feel a certain exhilaration about this. The world record holder in hot form is destroying the strongest beer mile field ever assembled. Second will go to Brian or me. Which, ok, that’ll be Brian. The guy has wheels, it turns out. He hits the homestretch and starts sprinting and I try to respond but he powers away and beats me by a full two seconds. Josh "The Chunder From Down Under" Harris vomits and has to run a penalty lap, but here's a guy who has run four of the top nine times all-time and he'll atone. Plus he's a fast enough runner to have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Australian Olympic team in the marathon and, it turns out, he's just a damn fine gentleman. Neilson crosses in 5:45 but is disqualified for having over double the allowable amount of beer left in his cans.

Some race stats: Lewis Kent: 5:09.7 Brian Anderson: 5:14.7 Jim Finlayson: 5:16.6 Michael Johnson: 5:26.0 Michael Cunningham: 5:38.3 Jeff Mountjoy: 5:48.3 Nate Beach: 5:55.1 Kevin Craigie: 6:34.0 Josh Harris: 7:00.0 (with a penalty lap) Phil Parrot-Migas: 7:16.0 (with a penalty lap) A.J. Accosta: 7:45.0 (with a penalty lap) James Neilson: 5:45 (DQ - over 4oz beer remaining) Charlie Blanche: 6:13 (DQ - over 4oz beer remaining)

Cumulative Beer remaining in bottles: Least: Brian Anderson Second least: Lewis Kent, Jim Finlayson Most: Blanchy and James Neilson, both with over 8oz.

Cumulative drinking time (in seconds, including travelling the 9 meter exchange zone): Lewis Kent: 30 Jim Finlayson: 31 Brian Anderson: 33 Josh Harris: 35 Michael Johnson: 36 Jeff Mountjoy: 36 James Neilson: 38 Michael Cunningham: 42 Phil Parrot-Migas: 51


Four races this year, different enough I could be trying to discover where my talent lies. If we convert my races into a track 10 000m based on percentage away from the world record, here’s what I’ve run, in chronological order: January 8km road (25’47” / WR 21’51”): 31’01” February half marathon road (1h09’27” / WR 58’23”): 31’16” March 5km road (16’24” / WR 12’59”): 33’12” March Beer Mile track (5’18” / WR 4’56”): 28’12”

Sure the conversion isn’t robust (can we compare James Hansen to Zersenay Tadese?), but if event talent is the question, the conclusion is stark. And so I’ve accepted an invitation to compete in the Beer Mile World Classic in San Francisco in August.

But I don’t want to be a beer mile specialist.

I want to see if I can get back down into the 1h07’ range for a half-marathon, and if I feel like I’m getting close I’ll head to Portugal in September for the Porto and Lisbon half marathons, not necessarily to run fast but rather because if you’re fit and you race half marathons, who wouldn’t want to race along the Douro river early morning when the fishermen are casting their lines, before the port cellars of Gaia open for the day. Plus it’s close to Italy and there’s a month between races; not necessarily a greater seduction, but an attraction nonetheless.

In the meantime back at the MS clinic I’m being tested for peripheral neuropathies. Yet another new doctor. With the nascent uncertainty about my diagnosis we’re now looking at possibilities other than MS. This new doctor is checking my peripheral nerve conduction speeds. He attaches a sensor to the proximal part of my femur, one of the muscles, then jams a needle into its distal counterpart. He tells me to contract the muscle. To resist his pressure as he pushes against my leg. But I’m a runner and for thirty years I’ve learned to block certain pain and to be finely tuned to other pain. There’s a certain type of pain I’ve trained myself to move with rather than fight. When he tells me to contract and resist I am feeble. He pushes my leg and my leg flops back to the bed.

He concludes I have (or had, and am stable but have permanent nerve damage from) Guillain-Barré. This was the original diagnosis from 11 years ago, back when MRIs revealed only one lesion and so they couldn’t classify it as Multiple Sclerosis. After these tests, after going through my chart and reviewing my 2014 MRI, he says he’s pretty sure this is all it ever was. Guillain-Barré. He’s not ruling out MS, but he says it’s unlikely.

But what about my 2009 symptoms, I ask? And the 2009 MRIs? Those scans were worse than the 2004 ones and were used to make the diagnosis. Stress, he suggests, for my subsequent flare ups, and he didn’t compare 2014 MRIs to older ones. He didn’t look at them. He said the most recent ones were the only ones that matter here. If it is MS, these scans would show the most damage. They would tell him all he needs to know.

But what if there was an improvement? And what about my eye exams that were abnormal and now aren’t?

He clocks my disappointment. Jim, this is good news, he tells me. But to me this is non-news. I know I’m stable. I was hoping for something a little more miraculous. I wanted him to be confused and to tell me what I had has disappeared, and to not have an explanation. I’d hoped to be told I’m getting healthier, not that I’m permanently damaged but not getting worse. Plus it doesn’t clear up the question of MS. I still don’t know if I have it and am managing the symptoms, or if I had it and have somehow recovered, or never had it at all. I’m asking too much of the medical system, I realize. The answers to these questions may never arrive. Maybe the answers aren't what matter and what's important is refining our former selves. Still, I can’t help but want certainty.

And so on Wednesday morning, April Fool’s day, I arrive for an appointment with my regular neurologist. A nurse takes my blood pressure. She takes me into the hall and says she’s going to time me to walk 25m as fast as I can without losing control. My heart rate spikes. I’m going to kick this walk’s ass. She says Go! On my second step my adidas Samba’s gum rubber sole sticks to the linoleum when my heel touches; it grabs the floor and tries to stop me dead but my momentum is crashing forward. I reach for the wall to stop from falling but my hands are slick from adrenaline and they slip. In life I run more than I walk, and if I have to do anything for speed it’s never walking. The low arc of a walker’s gait, I try to explain to the nurse, from the floor. She stops her stopwatch. Let’s try again, she says.

The nurse finishes her preliminary examination and my neurologist replaces her. We run through a familiar gamut of tests. She reads the report from the doctor who said it’s likely Guillain-Barré. I biked here on tired legs. My helmet is on the adjacent chair. I have a bit of a chill from the ride and the thin layer of sweat now cooling. For five years we’ve had the same routine. I lie on the table. She pokes my feet with a toothpick and I say yes when she asks me if I can feel it. My muscles resist her pressure. I touch my nose and then her finger. Nose, then finger. I track her finger with my eyes as she moves it across my range of vision. Good, she says.

There are things Guillain-Barré can’t explain, she tells me. The abnormal eye exams. Lesions on the spine, on the brain. Not many spots, she says, but here and here, and she pulls up my MRI scans on her computer. The lesions are faint. They aren’t the bright flares one sees when MS is certain. She’s sure this isn’t only Guillain-Barré. There’s an auto-immune component, an inflammatory component. It may still be MS, but it’s mild and whatever this is, I’m managing the symptoms.

What confounds me is she doesn’t ask me how I’m managing things. I’ve seen seven neurologists and all of them agree I’m doing well. I seem to be healthy. They tell me to keep doing what I'm doing. This what they actually say: Keep doing what you're doing. Yet in 11 years not once have I been asked What are you doing? Presumably these specialists became neurologists in order to understand disorders of the nervous system.  How is it possible I could have MS, and then not? What did I do between 2004 and 2015 to go from being unable to walk to racing half-marathons? Maybe I don’t have MS and so the answer isn’t germane. But the neurologists also all agree something has been going on. I’ve had symptoms. I’ve been in a wheelchair because walking was too difficult, and I have abnormal test results related to my nervous system, and it looks like I have permanent nerve damage. The neurologists all know I’m not taking any medication, and still nobody has asked what I’ve been doing to be able to not only live a healthy life, but race marathons and half-marathons and beer miles. I don’t think I’ve done anything special and I certainly haven’t been obsessive with how I’ve lived. Still. How are they not curious? How have they not been curious when all of them, for the better part of 11 years, have gone from believing I have MS to believing I don't?

At the end of our 90 minute appointment my neurologist sits down across her desk from me and closes my file. She tells me I look healthy. She tells me I sound healthy. There’s really nothing more they can do for me. My file will remain active but there’s no need to book another appointment. If anything changes I’ll see my GP and he and I can decide the next step, but for now I’m being discharged from the MS clinic.


Here at the Circuit of the Americas F1 race track Jack Colreavy, Australia's second fastest beer miler of all-time, is stretched out on the asphalt in a pit lane garage, his head resting on his backpack. The day's sun has been replaced by evening floodlights and 8 jumbotrons, a buzz of circuitry both physical and psychological. We're 12 miles from downtown Austin, Texas. A lone star on the lone star state, isolated from the major city electricity. Colreavy is a stunt double in Unbroken, Angelina Jolie's film adaptation of Hillenbrand's biographical novel about an Olympic runner and war hero. Earlier in the day he called Angelina on the phone to see if she'd be able to come to the race. She couldn't. But really, the thought of who will be in the crowd isn't part of his evening musings. In an hour he'll be racing the first ever Beer Mile World Championships, and his mind is partly on the $2500 first place price and the $2500 world record bonus. Mostly, though, he wants to win this thing out of personal and National pride, and, like the rest of us, he's thinking about how catastrophically it could go wrong if it does go wrong. Most of his competitors are here with him in the pit lane. Cunningham slumps against a white plaster wall. Kent, Tully and Macpherson are lined up next to Cunningham, and Liwing is too. I'm on the other side of Liwing, all of us staring out through the open garage door at the track and the swelling crowd and the dazzling lights. The setting is majestic. Gallagher's in the vicinity, too, but he's over there being interviewed. CNN. ESPN. The New York Times. Gallagher is the favourite and everyone wants a word with him before the race. I twist the cap of a Budweiser Light Platinum bottle with gentle pressure so that it stays sealed, just testing it. Sometimes the hand slips, but in tonight's humidity there's a stickiness I like. Opening them in the race won't be a problem. The question, for me, is what it tastes like. I've never tried this beer. Never had a Budweiser of any sort. A bunch of us are using it tonight, though. It's Gallagher approved.

A woman from Runners' World comes over and asks me a few questions. I tell her I'm not the guy to talk to. I'm not one of the favourites. I point to Colreavy. He has been training in New York and is here for one reason: he wants the world record. I mention Cunningham, who closed the final 400m of his debut beer mile in 54 seconds, a split I can't run right now fresh, with spikes, without beer. Couldn't ever run, actually, not even when I was a dozen years younger and at my peak. Those are the guys to chat to, I say. I'd mention Gallagher, but he's buried in that scrum of reporters. She'd have better luck chatting to him if she tried calling his cell. It'd be the only way to pierce to the centre. There's no way she'd get a pen and paper through to him now.

Someone from Nick Symmonds' camp threads over and hands us a trial packet of gum. Run Gum, and I flip it over and read the ingredients. 100mg of caffeine. Enters the system faster than caffeine from a tablet. Not bad, I think, and then I see him leave the pit garage and head trackside where he hands gum to children. Which, wow. I wouldn't want to be their parents.

The boys are starting to agitate. Tying up their trainers. Jesus, it's only 45 minutes until race start, that came up fast. We group together and head out to the pit lane for our warm up. Up on the jumbotrons we see that the sub-elite race is underway. Brittenbach is going for the masters' world record. The mark is 5:51 and, after chatting with his coach Doug Consiglio earlier in the day, it sounds like he's fit for it. He hits 1:13 for the first beer and lap. He's flying. The guy's not small, either. The beer bottle looks positively miniature in his hand. Gallagher, Tully, Colreavy, Cunningham, Lewis and I are jogging abreast, keeping our eyes on the screens. A prone photographer snaps a few pictures of us and rolls out of our way. Brittenbach splits lap two in 2:43. He's going to crush the record, and he's not the only one running fast in this heat. Tracking him is a heavily bearded engineer from Kingston, Canada.

One of the questions I was asked before this race was: What message do I think this race sends? Clarifying, What happens when binge drinking is not only televised, but celebrated? What happens in public mind when a race like the beer mile hits front page of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times? As the heroes or villains, what is our responsibility here? It behooves us to contemplate this, at the very least. We are the titans. We are the ones with the platform; the ability to reach others.

Violence in media is a risk factor for violence in real life, although the former doesn't preordain the latter. The same appears to be true about alcohol. A small, but statistically significant, positive correlation. I don't yet have solid opinion about my responsibility here. Most of me wants to just enjoy the experience. Can I be held accountable for other people's actions? These are questions I thought about before flying to Austin, and will think about again after the race.

Brittenbach is kicked down in the last lap by Mountjoy, the Canadian, but his 5:42 still eclipses the master's world record. In the next race, the women's elite, Elizabeth Herndon wins in 6:17, a new world record, cashing in on the $2500 winner's prize and another $2500 for a world record.

We're up next. One at a time the starter gets us to check our beers, making sure our selected ones are lined up and they're in the order we want. Most of us have bottles, and we're told to choose between placing them on the left side on the asphalt or the right side on the grass. Left is the inside track, but we'll have to drop the bottles to the right grass either way. I stay on the left. Gallagher and Symmonds stay left. The official calls Colreavy up to check his beers, and on his way past me he pats my back and says "Wind back the clock, man", referring to my 5:09 from 7 years ago. This is perhaps what I like most about this race. We're competitive, of course, but above all we want to put on a show. For that we need everyone to race well. We actually want our competitors to race well.

Of the 10 of us, I think only Colreavy has ever lost a beer mile, and only because he usually faces Josh Harris, the world number three. The rest of us, the other 9, are undefeated in our careers. We aren't used to having others ahead of us in a race. Aren't used to being pushed, having to hurry, having to force things, and with the setting and the crowd, with the cameras and the PA system blaring, and God there we are on those massive jumbotrons! I can see more pores on Anderson's screen face than his right-next-to-my-face face. With our nerves, I'm intensely curious to see what'll happen. There's no way the results will align with the media guide's formchart.

I don't know if it's just anxiousness, if it's the beer, or if I was simply distracted by the relative immensity of the stage, but the gun fires and after the first beer I'm second-to-last off the line. Easily my slowest opener, ever. Maybe this is how the nerves and distractions manifest for me. Second-to-last in 8.2 seconds, and Gallagher, out first, already has a 2 second gap on me. Nobody's moving fast on the run, though, except Tully who blazes his first 400m in 61.5. The rest of us spread wide across the track coming into the exchange, packed together and jostling for position.

Cunningham splits halfway in 2:29 and has a 5 second lead on the pack. He's dangerous, my pick to win this thing. One of two sub-4:00 straight milers in the field and, unlike Symmonds, the guy can drink. Seven of us, including Gallagher and Symmonds, are tight together splitting 2:34 to 2:37. Only Liwing, the Swede who raced a beer half marathon two days ago, is off the back. McPherson has already dropped out after folding to his second beer.

This is where the complexion of the race starts to express itself. Two beers in, two laps in. The third lap is the tough one. It's the one we need to survive in order to get to the last lap. That's all it is. Survival. Put the work in on the third lap, because adrenaline will lift you on the fourth. Cunningham's out quickly after his third beer, but it's Gallagher who impresses. He crushes his third beer. The exchange is a bit deceptive with the timer starting when you cross the first mat 9m from the finish and stopping at the finish, so the 'drinking' time includes 9m of travel. But timing from when the beer hits Gallagher's lips to when it leaves them, wow. 4.8 seconds. He's a couple of steps behind Cunningham and is clawing those back. In fact by the time they hit the end of the third lap, Cunningham and Gallagher are reaching for their beers at the same time. We've a 185 pound former hockey player from Winnipeg, a guy who swears he couldn't break 65 seconds in an all-out 400m sprint, vs a 3:59 miler from Maine who closed his first and only beer mile in 54 seconds. In distant third is Colreavy. I'm a couple of steps behind the Aussie, in fourth, and have a bit of a lead over 5th. One beer and one lap of the track to go.

And honestly, it appears to be over before the running starts. Gallagher slams his beer in 4.7 seconds, looks back as he rounds the first corner, and sees nothing but space. Cunningham is still drinking, and Colreavy and I are just coming into the exchange. The announcers are a bit wild at this point, their voices leaping an octave. Gallagher's pressing for a sub-5:00 but they know, too, that Cunningham can roll and if he's sharp like he was in his debut, he can make up 50 - 60 meters. Gallagher's maybe 20 down the track before Cunningham drops his bottle and attacks.

But to everyone's surprise Gallagher extends his lead. Cunningham's kick has been drawn out of him from the fast early pace, and Gallagher has the bit. Two life-sized bananas are pogoing on the infield like a Halloween rave, chasing Gallagher around the final bend. He takes a quick look behind as he hits the final straight, slips and torques his flats centripetally. Looks like he may have rolled an ankle, but he's a hockey player and a bull and if there was any pain he didn't feel it, and the crowd is leaning into the track now, spectators bent double yelling at him because a sub-5:00 is absolutely possible here with 120 meters to go. He's not looking back anymore, he knows he's going to win; the only question is the time. The crowd is a frenzy of arms and movement, and the announcers' voices are breaking and they're reading the clock as Gallagher sprints to the finish, 4:56, 4:57, 4:58 and it's so close but the clock stops at 5:00.23.

Cunningham crosses 7 seconds later in second, breaking his old best by 12 seconds, and I finish third in 5:21.

In the post-race interview Gallagher is fired up. He's holding the trophy aloft with one hand, and his other hand is balled in a fist and he's speaking fast but clearly, challenging current and disputed world record holder James Nielson. There's some question about the veracity of the world record, and though I wish the sub-5:00 had first been broken on a night like tonight, in a race like this, I have to believe beer milers don't have a lot to gain by cheating.

A night later and I'm arriving home in Victoria with the first ever documented beer mile injury, a blocked salivary duct on my lip where I banged myself with a beer bottle. It will need surgery. Colreavy messages from New York, having flown home earlier in the day. He's at a bar and was just approached by a group of girls who saw him in the race. "I love this sport," he writes.

People ask me what next? They want to know, only partly in jest, if it will become part of the Olympics. It absolutely won't. I think it will be a supernova event. It will flare brightly for a short period of time, then fade. But we're all enjoying its surprising thrust into the limelight.




image I arrived in Austin too late to attend the Beer Mile World Championships press conference, but the word is Sweden's Markus Liwing was a mess after setting a world record Monday in the Beer Half Marathon. A beer every mile for 13 miles. The European beer mile record holder shattered the former half marathon record by over 2hrs with his 2h46', and he'll be lining up for tonight's mile. Guy'll become an instant legend if he pulls off an upset over this field.

We have 10 in the elite men's race, and six of them have goal times faster than the current world record. This race will be scrutinized, though, and so I wouldn't be surprised to see times a bit slower than personal bests. Judges will be tipping cans after each beer. Disqualification if there's anything remaining. The favourites are Nick Symmonds (3:51 open mile, 5:19 beer mile), and Corey Gallagher (5:01 beer mile, #2 all-time) but the field's tight. Tough to call the win. The biggest news right now is the venue change. Flotrack had secured a high-school track for the race, and were called last night to say we have to move. The high-school is on heritage land and they'd prefer it if we don't race the beer mile there. We'll move to the Circuit of the Americas track, an F1 site, which means a) we'll be running on pavement (no spikes, and a number of us didn't bring flats), and b) if anyone breaks the world record, it won't count. Otherwise things are going ahead as scheduled, and nobody here is griping. We're just enjoying being a part of it.

After I checked into my room I joined former women's record holder Seanna Robinson for a bite at a German Sausage place on Rainey street. Charming spot in an old converted home. Bratwurst sausage on a pretzel bun, and a dish of roasted beets, squash and kale. Seanna's superstitious about drinking the night before a beer mile, but neither of us had tried Hops and Grain, the race's sponsor, and we didn't want to go in cold. We ordered two cans of the Greenhouse IPA. Not the race beer (they're canning up a special low-carbonation brew for the event), but it gave us an idea of what to expect. Mine took 7.5 seconds.


The fall racing season usually spans three months, starting with a couple of low-key events to remind our bodies how to race. Something in September to get a sense of how things are going, unsticking some of the adhesions that seem to hold us after a summer away from that kind of intensity. We build from race to race, and if things go well, the season ends in November with some kind of on-the-stage Denchian performance at our national championships. But my season won’t be like that. For me, the season has been ratcheted down to two rasping races, only four days apart. November 29th, the Canadian Cross-Country championships at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. Shower, wash my spikes in English Bay, shove them in a bag, and catch a flight to Austin, Texas, where, on December 03, I’ll race the Beer Mile World Championships. A bullet season that enters and leaves the body quickly, raking lungs, heart, liver. The Jericho race should be straightforward. Expect pissing rain, temperatures just high enough to stop it from condensing into snow. Expect Odie, a set of lungs perched on ostrich-like leg muscles, to power confidently through the mire. Expect him to make it onto the podium for the fourth straight year; will it be gold for the first time? Expect a couple of former National champions from Ontario, and medallists from Vancouver, to bid for the title. No hoopla. We’ll fly in, race, and get out. An assassin’s strike. No standing around socializing before or after the race, not with this crowd. No blowout party. Clean off the mud, straighten our ties, run fingers through our hair, and step back onto the airplane. Settle in and leaf through the En Route magazine. Get off the plane and cab home.

Unless Austin is your destination, in which case you’ll swap your En Route for a Pahlaniuk. You’ll order a beer from the flight attendant, drink it straight from the can in 7 seconds, and order another. The attendant hasn’t even taken the next aisle’s order. Hasn’t even turned her body from yours. Touch down at the Austin-Bergstrom airport where, if you’re early, you’ll wait for Liwing’s flight to arrive from Sweden, Colreavy’s flight from Australia, before carpooling in a sweaty boozy cab to the hotel.

The inaugural Beer Mile World Championships, hosted by Flotrack and held in Austin. December 03, 2014. In comes Canadian Corey Gallagher, ranked second all-time with a 5:01 p.b. Hannan, Kent, Cunningham, Anderson. A wolf pack of American men in the 5:18 - 5:25 range. The Swedish record holder. The second fastest man in Australia. There’ll be a big cheer for 5:19 guy Nick Symmonds, fifth in the 2012 Olympic 800m (in a time quick enough to have medalled at every other Olympics). A swagger man. He cold-called Paris Hilton’s dad before the 2012 Olympic trials, asking permission to date Paris. Dad apparently was ok with it, and so was Paris (for one date, at least).

My 5:09 best is from seven years ago. I don't have that kind of speed these days. In fact, I expect to finish last in the race, but I have to be there. I need to race. The beer mile has gone from a decade of marginality, to mainstream in 2014, since James Nielsen became the first man to break 5:00. It made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times emailed asking if they could interview me; they called me a pioneer. We're laughing about it, sure, but we're also seriously enjoying its current éclat.


Two weeks before this year’s Victoria marathon I jogged to the Royal Jubilee hospital for an appointment with my neurologist. I was waiting on results from three different tests: two eye exams, and a contrast MRI. That I was jogging to this appointment made me feel like a bit of a tosser; burning up medical money and time. This was my morning run. A shake out. In the afternoon I’d planned for a longer workout. And I felt, if I was healthy enough to be able to run to this appointment, I was healthy enough to not have to be at the hospital at all. It was just a follow up for exam results. Tracking the movement of my multiple sclerosis. Early October with the leaves yellowing and letting go, spiraling unhurriedly to the ground, and getting raked into kid-piles.  Sun, uncut grass, throws of center spectrum colours. I breathed deeply, and the cool clean air reminded me: I have lungs.

But sometimes I don't have legs. Sometimes I descend stairs and hold the bannister because my muscles and mind are out of sync. On these occasions I am clumsy and fear falling. Stairs feel dangerous. My legs are unreliable. The MS is kicking up and I need to move cautiously.

Some days I feel foggy and don't have depth of thought. Sometimes my hands and fingers feel thick and have lost dexterity. Try catching a tennis ball while wearing oven mitts. Try closing that mitt around the ball just as the ball reaches your hand. Feel for the ball's texture, feel for the sweet moment it thunks into the deep pocket of your hand. Watch the ball bounce away. This is my MS. Is now the time to start medication? I haven't taken any, but maybe it's time.

In a second floor room at the hospital a resident neurologist with a new hunger sat at ninety degrees to me. Ten years of my reports and results, symptoms and evidence, were piled on the desk in front of him. Have you ever been tested for Sjogren’s? he asked. Have you ever been tested for Lyme disease? He checked my reflexes (no patellar response, good everywhere else). He moved my Hallux up and down, and with my eyes closed I told him the direction, and I was correct. I walked a sobriety test line, and felt balanced and capable and very much sober.

We pulled up my June MRIs and scrolled through the images. “Here’s a lesion”, he told me, and pointed with the cursor to a nebulous whitish area at the base of the choroid plexus. “But this isn’t the shape we’d expect to see with MS. Usually lesions are oval and well defined. This might suggest demyelination, but it isn’t convincing.”

We looked through MRI images of the cervical and thoracic spine. Two spots suggestive of demyelination, but not necessarily representing it, and these were the same two spots that had been captured ten years ago. Seemed to me they were fainter. No progression, and possibly some regeneration. “There’s nothing that concerns me here,” he said. “I’m not convinced you have MS.” And then he left the patients’ room to consult with my usual neurologist.

I thought about calling my mum. Thought about calling M, or my sister. My phone was on the next chair, in airplane mode. A parallelogram of sunlight flared against the north wall. Does the possibility I don't have MS suggest I have something even more disabling? Is it possible I don't have any disease at all?

I was still seated, stony and deep, thinking about who to call and what I would say, when the resident returned with the neurologist in charge of my case. “The thing with MS...” my neurologist began, once they were both settled, and I knew right away she wasn’t going to disagree with the resident.

They sent me downstairs to the lab for more testing. Ten vials of blood. Veins that kept clotting and collapsing, refusing. Four needles in four different spots on my arms. “How are you doing,” the nurse asked, noticing the furrows of my forehead. She was massaging my forearm, pushing blood to the needle tip, coaxing it because it wasn’t running freely. A clock on the wall over her right shoulder ticked seconds; the measured public school classroom staccato of time passing too slowly. “I’m fine,” I said, grateful to have somebody asking.

Every day for the next week a new negative would come in. I’d wait until mid-morning before calling the lab. One morning I reached a nurse who hesitated before giving me the news. “You’re pregnant!” she said, then laughed. “Nah, everything looks great. You’re a healthy boy.”

I had an appointment with my neuro-ophthalmologist to go over some eye exam results. Tests that had been positive in the past were negative. He reviewed my MRIs, too, and without looking up from my file said “I don’t see any signs of disease.”

But in 2004 I couldn’t walk properly for a month. My nerve conduction speeds were half that of a normal adult’s. I had headaches and night sweats, and a migrating hypersensitivity to superficial touch (yet a hyposensitivity to heat and cold and deep pressure). My vision blurred, especially in my right eye. Five years later when the symptoms returned, four different neurologists studied my MRIs and other exam results, and all of them concluded I have MS. There was no doubt.

And now the three neurologists I saw over the past month think I probably don’t have MS, and may not have any disease. Nothing. A healthy boy.

Clearly something has been going on. How can the experts be certain of a diagnosis, and a decade later be uncertain? The measuring instruments haven’t changed. Our methods for diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis haven’t changed. Even most of the professional minds behind my original diagnosis are the same. What’s happening here?

But I don’t have any answers. Explanations. Possible reasons for why this could have looked like MS for ten years, and now it doesn’t. Maybe I didn’t ever have it. Maybe I had it and have regenerated. Maybe I only ever had stress reactions to emotions, viruses, though surely the neurologists wouldn’t offer a graver diagnosis for the troubles I’ve had. Surely they’d have started at the surface before digging.

I feel as though I have a good team around me. They're doing the best they can. When asked if I am angry about the possibility of a misdiagnosis, I realize I am not. But would I be angry if I’d taken medication for something I don’t have? What about if I had stopped running, closed myself in a box, stopped living my life? Would I then be angry? At whom could I direct this anger?

Only at myself. All that lost time. All the things I could have done and didn’t, because of fear. Because of self-pity, or some sad and misguided attempt to collect attention and pity from others. If I had stopped running, stopped travelling, stopped laughing, not only would I be regretting how I lived the past decade, but there’s a very real chance I’d still be suffering.

This isn’t to say I changed nothing. I found ways to lower my stress levels. I slept when my body wanted sleep, and created a lifestyle in which I didn’t need a morning alarm clock. I drank more green tea and maccha, more red wine. Ate more chocolate, but the good stuff, the tickle-your-cells-and-don’t-poison-them stuff. Bonnat and Friis Holm chocolates, more like the whisper of a lover than the shout of a matador. I now am more aligned with a Paleo diet than ever. Thank you Cindy and Dave, thank you Heather. More fats, too. Avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters. I eat the best quality foods I can afford. I spend a lot of money on food.

Some of what was going on is still going on. I don’t think I am fully healed, but whatever it is isn’t limiting me. I still get numb fingers and toes if I eat too much ice cream or sugar. The right side of my torso sometimes burns flinchingly hot when a cold glass is pressed against it, while the left side responds by feeling drably cold. But these symptoms could be the resultant of any number of causes. I feel healthier than I’ve felt in six years. This is what’s most important.

When I am ravaged, physically or emotionally, I look after the things I can control. Small things. The stuff right in front of me like the food I eat, or my sleep. I don't always fall asleep, but I'll lie down. I'll breathe through my nose, narrowing my attention, counting the breaths like formless sheep. I slow down, become more deliberate. I move like someone afraid of falling and breaking a bone. It doesn't sound like any way to live, but it's temporary. Just through this acute phase. The diagnosis. Heartbreak.

Soon my convalescence starts to take hold. My strength returns. I expand. Better, I breathe into this expansion, pushing outwards, becoming more than I was. Like an artful competitor in a game of Risk.

I am expanding. Since March I've felt as though things are no longer shutting down. My system isn't shutting down, my hopes aren't shutting down. This began months before the neurologists questioned their original diagnosis. My heart feels bigger. I have a 142 pound frame and a ribcage knitted tightly enough to contain Tinker Bell, so I know my heart isn't actually bigger, but it feels like it is. It feels unbounded. The apogee of what I thought was possible is still up ahead. And isn't this the key; to continue pushing as we move through life, so that our possibilities remain an arm's length in the future.


I’m at the busker festival and I tell M we need to stand a bit back from the front of the crowd; that if we don’t, I’ll get pulled up to perform. This is what happens to me, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. “Maybe you’ll be my lucky charm,” she says, hoping to get picked herself.

But I’m nobody’s lucky charm. Chosen to mime, chosen to be the support bridge so that an acrobat could do a handstand off my back. Chosen three years ago to tandem hoola-hoop with a Quebecois woman in a unitard, and my hips don’t move that way, they don’t circle, especially after a morning long run. She told me to lift my hands in the air, and quickly she removed my shirt. She hung a lei around my neck. And then we were together in a big hoola-hoop and her hands were on my hips trying to get them to rotate, trying to get them to unlock.

Selected three times in three years. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my face, when relaxed, looks intense and angry. Maybe they see a guy who looks like he isn’t having fun and they want to brighten his day. Or maybe it’s just because I’m 5’11” and have a fit frame, and they want somebody who won’t die on them.

We have four shows we want to watch, but the one I’m most excited about is the USA Breakdancers. These Bronxians can drop. In a spectrograph we’re as far apart as possible. Knee bones don’t seem to connect to thigh bones for these guys, and thigh bones don’t connect to hip bones. Their bones seem to be able to separate and migrate to anywhere in their bodies.

The USA Breakdancers are set up on Government street. Basically they’ve closed off traffic from the downtown core for the shows, and these guys are right by the Irish Times pub, in the middle of the street with a thickening mob of tourists. And locals, like those two right there, Leah and Allan, and I wave at them but they don’t see me and so don’t wave back.

Once the show gets underway, it’s with undying amusement M watches as the MC squares his shoulders my way and walks over. She knows what I know. I’m screwed.

They need four spectators to help with the show. Four out of... how many are out here? There’s a thicket of people. You see the first row and the offset second row, and a bit of the third row, but then patterns of fabrics and heads get too complicated, the mesh of arms and legs too dense to estimate. Two black guys are pulled from the crowd. These two are dressed like they’ve been planted in the audience, like they could make money off dancing, poorly disguised sharks, clearly with Dance in their genes. They also grab an unfit looking white guy, and me.

But how bad can it be? They’ll teach us a move, we’ll do some choreographed routine as a group, I’ll be a minnow and then the audience can get back to watching the professionals.

No, no, no, and eventually.

What happens is they divide us into two teams and their team will send one guy to the floor, and after he busts all the moves he knows and possibly even a bone, he’ll throw the gauntlet down for someone on our team to pick up. Which, in this case, is me.

I have one signature move and it’s pretty white, something with guns blazing in the air and a cap gun sound a kid would make, rapidfire. Not exactly breakdancing but this is probably the genre it best belongs in, and it’s better than no move, but when the other white guy finishes his rather aggressive dance and points to me, my mind goes devastatingly blank.

What I know is I did something with my neck. Some move with my hands in the air up around my neck, maybe what the uninitiated would call Locking, but not what I would call it and not what the MC called it when, after all four of us had peacocked, he hummed about who he felt were the two winners and chose me as one of them because of my “neck move”.

The two winners would have a final dance-off.

That’s how these things work.

A competition of four gets pared to two, and the final two do one more dance to determine the winner. Me against the other white guy, and what this really means is we’re the losers, and the MC, the other breakdancers, the growing crowd, and the few I recognize in the crowd all get to see the sequel.

The shorter breakdancer walks over to me. “Dude, you’ve gotta help,” I plead, and he’s like, Ya, that’s why I’m here. He’s assigned to teach me something spectacular. Something to wow them. For the win. But I don’t care about winning so much as just not looking like a clown. He hangs a chain around my neck with a dollar sign on it, fits me with a baseball cap, angled sideways, and walks me through my moves. It’s all pretty sedated, all pretty family friendly, my routine. Almost soothing, I think, the rhythm of it. But from the corner of my eye I’m catching some serious gyrations happening at the other end of the dance floor, which worries me. The other pro breakdancer, the taller guy, used to perform on Broadway. His face is more of a caricature of itself than itself, and he’s pumped up.

The MC is back on the Mic. He tells the crowd this time our team, which is just me now, will be going first, and he says “When you’re ready.” but I’m not sure if he means ‘now’ or if I have a bit of time to get my bearings, and I’m not even sure I heard him correctly, but when he goes silent and the crowd goes silent and I see a lot of white faces, I know it’s time. Honestly, I have so little to remember and still I almost forget, but there’s also a part of me which has split from the corporeal me and is above, observing, and so I know I hit my moves. Hands flat in front, hands behind the neck, again some rotation at the hips, and I finish with a bit of harmless thrusting. I turn defiantly from my challenger and brush him off.

And he gets out and kills it. He looks so good. He’s found a toque and sunnies, and his movements are so fast and hard he never has more than one foot on the ground, and usually less. His sunnies fly off his face sometime during his performance. I’m clapping before he's finished.

Now it’s time to determine the winner, Starsky and Hutch style. Everyone who thinks this guy won, give a cheer, says the MC, and a large roar erupts for the other guy. And everyone who thinks he won? says the MC, pointing at me, and it really does sound like a difficult question, as though he doesn’t expect an answer, and there’s a civilized applause the kind you might hear during Sunday mass, like women clapping with two fingers on a gloved palm. Let’s hear that again, says the MC, and we go through the process a second time, and now I’m tuned in and I think even my friends might be cheering for the other guy, and for me it’s unmistakably not quiet, though you do have to listen. The MC walks over to me, shakes my hand, and congratulates me on winning.

In the photographs after, you can see I didn’t quite get down into the deeper grind of my moves. I look pretty straight, like I’m still caring about posture. The taller professional breakdancer is looking away from me with his face balled up like he’s being branded. There’s a mom in the crowd with her right hand covering her mouth and most of the rest of the lower part of her face, almost up to her eyes, and with her left arm she’s pulling her child in to her body tightly. Protectively.

Later that evening as I’m walking down the street, and this is maybe two hours after the show, I pass a different mother and her son. The mom taps her little boy on the shoulder and says “Hey, look, there’s the dancer.”



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I’ve raced five times since arriving home from Kenya. The first was the Times Colonist 10km here in Victoria, which I wasn’t sure I would do except the start is a five minute jog from my place. I’ve been anywhere from 30:04 to 32:47 in this race, spanning 17 years, and this year lining up I figured I’d be at the slower end of the range, possibly establishing a new bookend. My body feels fantastic on my easy runs. I’m running them slower than ever, some mornings starting by just moving my legs and then transitioning almost imperceptibly from a walk to a run, with my body on Canadian soil and my mind on the red dirt Kenyan roads. Enjoying the process the way we’re always told to appreciate it, not caring about the outcome, using it as meditation first and training as an afterthought. Leaving my place in the mornings, and sometimes again in the evenings, and committing only to the very first step out the door, and if something good comes from it, something beyond the felicity born from every cell in my body being held tight against the moment, something that might actually be useful on race day, then I’m a fortunate one. Running that’s so incredibly enjoyable I’ll often arrive home wondering how it’s possible to love it this much after 30 years of hard training.

But my intensity days have been awful. I’ve lost 5 seconds from my top end 200m time, and my threshold work is about 20 seconds slower per mile. At 42 years old I expect to be slower, but what’s frustrating is I’ve felt terrible during the sessions, muscles shutting down as the workout progresses. Muscles getting heavy, then stopping firing. Not completely stopping. It’s the feeling of the belt being ratcheted too tightly on an exercise bike. It takes a lot of work to keep moving; something’s absorbing my energy. I push but don’t create any momentum. Contrast this with the best days when it’s easier to run than not, and very hard to stop.

Then on the morning of the TC I woke feeling good, and surprised myself by running a negative split over a windy second half, finishing in 31:37.

Which, then I thought I was cured and could break 1h08’ for my half marathon a week later on a stormy morning in Vancouver. I woke three hours before the race for my early morning shake out, jogging with an umbrella the wind would catch and invert, tugging me along like a leash. I passed silhouettes of couples huddled together, faces angled in with just their backs exposed. Claude Théberge subjects of mystery and seduction. After my jog, a shower so hot it stung my weather-bitten skin.

A trolley was scheduled to pick up the elites at 5:30 a.m. on a corner of E. Hastings, taking us to the start in Queen Elizabeth park. We arrived a minute late, in time to see it disappearing around a corner two blocks away. Lynn, elite athlete coordinator, stared after it until it was completely gone from view except for a final puff of exhaust, and continued staring for another half a minute with the rest of us now huddled under an awning against the rain, cagey with race tension and now a bit uncertain how we would get to the start. Lynn flipped open her phone to call the driver but the battery was dead. She turned to us and we could see she didn’t really know what to say, her mouth open in the way mouths sometimes find themselves when you can’t quite believe what’s happening, aren’t even sure what is happening, the reality at such discord with the intent. Backlit by the halogen street lamps, rain starting to drip from her hair. One of the ladies offered her phone to Lynn, who finally got in touch with the driver. He’d be back in twenty minutes, he said.

We pressed in closer together against the cold. Hastings isn’t the most glamorous of streets in that dark early hour. The rain was steady against the awnings, collecting and spilling off, splashing onto the cement and then our feet. This lonely time of morning with no headlights on the roads, and only the most intrepid or desperate labourers about. Twenty-five minutes passed before we saw our trolley returning down the street.

But half a block away the lights on the trolley went out. It had enough momentum to decelerate right to our corner before coming to a complete stop. The driver stood up and pushed at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He fiddled with something at the top of the door frame and pushed again, and still it wouldn’t move. We’d formed a polite line outside hoping to get on quickly and warm up, and we could only watch him until he shrugged his shoulders and gesticulated he couldn’t get the trolley started. It had broken down. A few of us laughed with the sort of comedy-of-errors laughter you never want to discover you possess. One of the Moroccans quickly hailed a cab passing and hopped in with one of the Kenyans. The rest of us were still hoping our trolley would kick back into life. Race start was an hour away.

A second trolley arrived not long after. It dropped us a few blocks away from Queen Elizabeth park 35 minutes before race start. A hurried warm up in the pissing rain and then we were off, splashing through puddles on the course. I want to blame my 1h11’ (new personal worst by over a minute) on the weather and the comedic morning, but really I think I just didn’t have the gusto. Two weeks later I lined up for a second half marathon, this time here in Victoria, with better weather and a normal pre-race morning, and I ran 30 seconds slower. Two 1h11’ races in May, after having never been slower than 1h09’ in my life.

I wasn’t sure which Me would show up at my next race, my only track 10 000m this year. What I wanted was the BC master’s record, 31:11, set nearly 30 years ago, and Geoff Martinson agreed to help me out with pacing. I would just hang on for as long as I could.

We hit halfway in 15:35, right on pace, but I’d already been working too hard for the past kilometer. There was no way I could keep this going. I’d just try to hold on to the pace for one more lap, and then see. Not even a lap. I wanted 200m. Half a track. I committed to just under 40 seconds of running at a time, because sometimes it turns around and I didn’t want to let the mark slip away. Give me 200m and then I’ll look at the next 200m. Sometimes we can find comfort in the uncomfortable, and if this is a statement about life more generally I think I’ve been pretty good at this, or pretty guilty of it. If we embrace the worst of it. Lungs that seem to hurt at the edges, like inhaling a rosebush. If we know it’s going to be awful for a while but there’s an end, we put our efforts into holding on. Not in a foolishly blind way, but in a tenacious I-know-there’s-a-kernel way. Still, Geoff and I slowed down. Some 3:08 kilometers, and 25:00 for 8km leaving me with hard running to do. Then a 3:04. I needed a 3:07 to finish but things were getting gritty. I had no idea how close I was. Missing the split with two laps to go, and again with 400m remaining. Knowing my only option was to hold together arms and legs that suddenly felt too long and heavy for my frame, a bouncer’s limbs attached to an addict's  torso. Throwing myself across the finish line still unsure of my time, which, when the results came in, was 31:03, breaking the 27-year old record.

Two weeks later, a 1:08:21 for a half marathon in Vancouver, and my trajectory is good heading into the fall.

Masai Mara - Part III

The fire crackles, propagating scintilla of ash. Figures dance in the flame; what images appear in Kenyan fires? The air is thinner here. Do flames suck in oxygen and combust it differently? Daniel and I finish our Tuskers and pay the bartender. Our tent is #72, the furthest one from the bar. We wend our way in the dark to the footbridge and across, further, strobing our path with a flashlight before turning it off and using the moon’s light, preferring the dampened contrast. On until we are right next to the perimeter’s electric fence. Camp personnel have turned on the citronella light in our tent. The room blushes from a small nightlight next to the beds, and the mosquito nets have been untied and fall plum. Daniel climbs into his bed and tells me he thinks he hears a mosquito, but that maybe it’s on the outside of the netting. “Listen to the buffalo,” he says.

I stop brushing my teeth. I turn off the faucet. From outside there’s what sounds like two buffalo having sex. I tap my toothbrush on the sink edge and toss it into the cup holder. The staff have turned down my bed and tucked a hot water bottle under the sheets, and I flip it to the next pillow. Daniel says goodnight, stuffs in his earplugs, and a short time later his breathing deepens into sleep.

I lie awake watching the ceiling fan lazily circling. I’m not tired. I can’t tell if that sound is a mosquito or the fan, but it seems to get closer at irregular intervals so I fear the worst. There are more than one couple of buffalo outside. It’s an orchestra. We’re so close to the electric fence it sounds like they’re right outside our tent.

Given the dry heat of the day it’s surprisingly muggy at night. I'm starting to perspire but I don’t want to shed the aegis of the blanket, because of the mosquito. I hear something scrabbling at Daniel’s side of the tent, and then the low chattering of monkeys. Birds too, lots of them in the trees. How thick is the canvas? Can monkeys scratch through? I’m hyper-alert. More awake than during most days. There’s blackness and from it crystallizes every sound.

I don’t know what time it is when the rangers arrive. I know I haven’t slept. When I first hear their footsteps on the path next to our tent I think This is it. My imagination splits from my body, leaves the tent and lifts up into the sky where it looks down at where we lay, just two tiny dots on this African expanse, and from up there it telegraphs to me. You could disappear here. I’ve been lying awake for a couple of hours and I’ve had time to imagine plenty of awful scenarios but this one is the worst of them, eviscerated by bandits, and that’s how I imagine it, something methodical and black market. I could be eaten by a lion. Dying from a mosquito bite would be somehow sad out here, far away from anything I consider normal, and if I’m smitten by yellow fever or malaria I’ll walk straight through the gates until I find my lions.

Before we left I was told not to worry about the men with machine guns. “It’s the ones carrying bows and arrows you need to watch out for. The ones who don't make a sound. Then you know you’re not safe.” Tonight I find this is oddly comforting. The footsteps stop outside our door, and I think if they were after us we wouldn't have heard them approaching. There’s the sound of something like a bird call but not quite; more mechanical. Too ... measured. It seems to sweep the night. The monkeys stop scrabbling at the canvas. Birds quiet down. As this mechanical sound recedes so do the noises from the buffalo. It’s quiet now, the tumult of the evening settled. Just the hum of the fan and the seraphic billowing of the mosquito netting, brushing against my blanket. It must be after 1:00 a.m.

In the morning the talk at tea is about the lion that leapt the electric fence into our camp last night. Shortly after 10:00 p.m. two Australians had settled their tab at the tiki hut common and headed straight back to their tent under the charitable starry night. On the path a lion which, who knows why, didn’t attack. Daniel asks our driver what a lion sounds like. He makes a sound like the buffalo. We ask what the buffalo sound like, and he makes a sound like something we’ve never heard. Daniel and I look at each other and I know he’s thinking the same thing, wondering how close we came.

Today we’re leaving Kenya. Driving the five hours back to Nairobi from the Masai Mara, and flying out at 4:00 a.m. After a short morning safari and breakfast we depart, hoping to make good time before the midday heat. Daniel can’t believe I fall asleep on the rutted roads. My head swings unnaturally on my neck, bounces with the van, pendulums through 180 degrees. When I jolt awake it’s because we’ve stopped. Ben is cursing, and from Daniel I learn we’ve flatted. We get out of the van and Daniel, who used to do this for a living, jacks the driver's side of the van, but we don’t have a spare. “It was stolen,” Ben tells us. He pulls out his cell phone and wanders down the road away from the sun to place the call, looking in the direction we came from. When he’s off the phone he tells us it’ll be about an hour before a new tyre arrives. I look left down the dirt road. It’s straight and empty for as far as I can see, until the north and south ditches converge into a single point at the horizon. I look right and see the same thing. Daniel is standing in the middle of the road and isn’t casting a shadow, and I look at my watch and see it’s getting close to noon. There’s a single tree beyond our van creating some shade, so I motion I’m heading over.

On one side of the road is a herd of cows. On the other, a Masai warrior walking our way. Ben has opened the van’s rear door and propped it overhead, and is standing underneath it drinking the last of his water. I watch him wipe his brow with a rag, and I walk back and join everyone.

The Masai is soft spoken and polite and makes small talk, pointing to his herd and telling us a lion killed one of his cows yesterday, right there. Daniel asks him if he wants a t-shirt, and he takes the one off his back and offers it to him, which the Masai accepts. I unwrap a piece of gum and chew on it to stimulate a bit of saliva. It’s easier on pavement and much harder on dirt roads to see when heat waves are shimmering. Far down the road dust is kicking up, which must be our vehicle, our spare. An hour has passed by the time it arrives.

Daniel turns the last crank and we pile back into our van just as a jackal runs across the road in front of us. Ben turns to us with his finger in the air, either an exclamation point or a warning, and we learn a bit more about Africa. “Where there’s a jackal there’s always a lion,” he tells us.

I feel like we’ve only been back on the road for a few minutes when I again burst from sleep. We’re on a long pavement hill defining the escarpment, about 100km outside of Nairobi, partway up the hill where it esses left. It’s our second flat tyre. We’re pulled onto a dirt shoulder littered with trash; banana peels and cobs of chewed corn, empty plastic water bottles and Coca Cola cans, flattened cigarette cartons, old newspapers, chicken bones, and green and black garbage bags ripped and fluttering in the parching breeze. The road is cambered away from our flat, so when we jack the van this time the vehicle seems to teeter. Sitting and watching us from the concrete guardrail across the road is a baboon. When we look up the road we see another, and as our eyes adjust to the sunlight, and the lustre of our stranded van becomes apparent, we notice six more baboons furtively making their ways down the hill, the way a boy might make his way across the dance floor to a girl. Eight baboons in total.

Ben calls it Crash Corner. He tells us 68 people have died here. As he is saying this Kenyan cyclists fly past on road bikes, tucked aerodynamically, and Daniel and I estimate they’re hitting 80kph. The air is thin, there’s a tailwind, and the descent is long and steep. Transport trucks muscle their ways in the opposite direction, climbing the hill, gasping billows of black exhaust. One of the drivers tosses a chewed corn cob out his window and two baboons chase it down, screeching at each other. More garbage is tossed out windows, now a plastic bag which splats in the opposite lane and stays on the highway. Four baboons race for it, and cars coming down the hill have to swerve to avoid them.

It’s scorching. Our drive to Nairobi was supposed to take five hours but we’ve already been on the road for seven and don’t yet have a spare tyre. To the east is a precipitous drop off the escarpment, and to the west the bushes are now rustling with something unseen. The air feels more humid here. Way off in the distance there’s a shifting of the sky, then it becomes electric, shooting with lightning.

We’re 90 minutes roadside before our spare arrives. The baboons have left us alone. They're in a sort of agitated semi-circle around us, but they haven't pressed any closer. Despite nothing more than a slight breeze the clouds have mobilized quickly. Ben gets us back on the road just before it starts raining. We’re like the Little Engine That Could getting over the crest of the climb, and then we rattle down the other side, raindrops detonating against our aluminum roof. Ben is driving to make up time. I’m not sleeping. What I’m doing is bracing, but meditatively, just sort of staring expressionlessly at the back of the front seat while tensing my arm and shoulder muscles like I’m trying to stop something from falling. There are many ways to die in Africa and one of them, I now believe, is skidding off the road during a thunderstorm. Cars zip past in the other direction, quickly becoming small and indistinct, and even the ones travelling in our direction seem to similarly recede, almost warily as though they're giving something dangerous wide berth, from what I can see in the rearview mirror when I dare to look, as though taking my eyes off the middle of the middle hatch of the hatched seat fabric in front of me would precipitate disaster. I feel as though I am keeping us on the road by force of mind.

I think sometimes we need to be squeezed. We need to be put in unfamiliar environments, to face new dangers, so that we can continue to grow. People ask me if Kenya changed me. If it did, I wouldn't know how to measure the changes. I've been home for two months. I feel happier. How long will this endure? I haven't been this happy in a long time. And I feel as though I have more time, though my schedule is as busy as ever. It is as though time has expanded. Minutes feel longer, in a good way. They no longer rush past indistinct. Minutes line up as individuals and I can look at them separately, count them, remember their faces. There's this perception of an expansion of time, and feeling happy; otherwise I am the same. I still get nervous before a date and talk too much or too little at the wrong times. I still eat a satisfying amount of chocolate. The particulars of my days haven't changed. My ambitions haven't changed. How I walk through Bukowski's fire, though, seems to have.

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Masai Mara - Part II

DSC_0820b My sleep is fevered, a malarial dream-sleep under the mosquito netting in our tent, dreams in which a mosquito kept biting me on the hand and I would paw at it with my other hand trying to remove my bitten hand like a glove. Sweating and rolling over in bed until my sheets were soaked, unsure if the buzzing I heard was inside or outside the barrier. When the alarm rings at 6:00 a.m. I am already awake, splayed and recovering. Exhausted like I’d been through rounds. I have 30 minutes before meeting Ben for our second trip to the veldt and I plan on spending it drinking tea darkly steeped.

Last night we saw giraffes, elephants, and lions, and today we’re hunting with cameras for a rhino. Truthfully I’m already happy. I don’t need to see a rhino for this safari to be a success. I’d wanted to see a lion, and we saw three last night. But what I also found was an unexpected bliss. Most of our 2.5 hours in the van last night was spent looking for animals, not at them, and I fell into a meditative reverie driving those long tangential dirt roads far west in Kenya where if you kept driving a little further along one of the roads you’d cross into Tanzania. Hands on the van’s frame where the roof detached, gently rocking with the terrain, the evening temperature cooling to something pleasant. The warm blanket of a sun. Air seeming to expand in my lungs after I’d breathed it in. My chest felt like it was bursting and I know at least some of that feeling was happiness.

Straight out of the gates this morning we see three lions padding through the savanna. Ben reaches into his bag and passes back two pairs of binoculars. We watch until they disappear into the bushes, and Daniel is surprised they’re so close to our camp. I hadn’t really thought about it but now that he’s mentioning it, it does seem auspicious. That, or ominous. Ahead the sun is coming up over the hills. A layer of dust covers the seats of our van.

We’re off the main path today and on smaller ones, snaking up the rolling hills and circling water holes. In the early morning we expect to find more activity. I watch Ben peering into the grass, knowing he knows where to find the rhinos, and when I see him looking only to our right I train my eyes that way too, from higher up above the roof. The dry grass whisks both sides of our vehicle and we gun the engine hard through some of the muddier patches, rutted where others have spun after the rains, our 4-wheel drive digging in and catching hold. There’s a singsong chorus of birds. A rare burst of a colourful bloom. The air is clean out here, carrying only the pollen of the red oat grass and motes of dust kicked up from our van.

Then to our left I see a hyena on a dirt knoll. Ben shuts down the engine and Daniel and I hurry to fire off a round of photos before it runs away. But it doesn’t run. Instead it tilts its head and starts walking closer. Ben whispers to us and motions straight ahead to another hyena walking toward us. It’s a bristly young one. And from the bushes emerges a third. The three of them come right up to our van and circle it, so close we can’t really see them, but we can see the antennae moving where one of them is swiping at it. Daniel lifts sharply from his seat and cracks his head on the roof’s support beam. His head starts to bleed, but right now he isn’t really feeling any pain. Just anxiousness. He leans over the top and sees a hyena chewing on our tyre. One of them lifts its head and rises onto its hind legs just as we realize our windows are open. Fuck. We need to shut them. If one of those things gets inside the van... but I don’t want to bring my hand too close to the opening. Ben revs the engine and the hyenas startle and give us a meter of space, but they recover quickly and come right back. I try to slide the window closed but my hand slips on the pane. The glass is too warm, my hand too sweaty. I try again and slip again. The third time I get purchase and the window slides and latches. Ben and Daniel are laughing and I feel a bit chilled.

In the evening we see a black rhino. It’s far across the field, and with my longest lens I can just make out its horn. The better photos right now are the ones of four other safari vans, slammed with tourists all facing in one direction like flowers in the sun. Some of them are trying to capture the rhino on their iphones. It’s laughable, actually. We’re exactly the same, with only the brands of cameras allowing for distinction. I take a couple of pictures, then decide to just be in the moment. To watch the slow movement of the rhino along the crest of the hill until it joins two more rhinos, the three of them then turning and moving into the longer grass until they’re barely visible. Then they disappear. Around us there’s a revving of engines and three of the vans u-turn and spin away, rushing south-west, circling around to where the rhinos were lost from view. Ben sits quietly and leans out his window. Daniel and I are braced against the van’s side panel, standing next to our seats, the warm sun on our faces. The sounds from the other engines die down until there’s just the cicadas and the rustling grass. The three of us breathing deeply. Just breathing. Absorbing everything around us.

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Masai Mara - Part I

DSC_0172c It’s 7:15 a.m. on Thursday morning and the traffic is light for Nairobi. We pass the US embassy on our left. Hotels going from luxury to hovelled as we leave the city center and hit the outskirts, from storied in both literature and height to a single dirt floor. The Masai Mara game reserve is a 5 hour drive from here if things go smoothly. It won’t rain.

“Two bombs were found in Mombassa yesterday,” our driver tells us, craning into the mirror and passing back two waters and the Daily Nation with the headlines. “One of the bombs was fixed in a hotel telephone. Big enough to bring down a 15-story building,” he continues. “The moment they answer the phone ... BOOM!” he says, throwing his hands into the air. He quickly regains the steering wheel.

Pop cans and plastic water bottles litter the embankments roadside. There’s no garbage pick up here, no services. Garbage gets burned or tossed out the windows of vehicles. To our left coming up the dirt path there’s a Kenyan running like Phoebe from Friends, as rare a sight as a rhino. We pass a Caution, families crossing the road street sign. A speed limit sign reads “50”. The “50” is crossed out. A little ways down the road another sign says “60” and the “60” is crossed out.

We stop just before the long winding descent into the Rift Valley, at a tourist’s lookout. Ben our driver grabs a coffee while Daniel and I use the facilities and poke through some of the shops. I’ve met an incredible number of Johns this trip, runners and drivers and random street people asking if they can have my shoes, and now the one who owns this shop. He asks me if he can have my pen.

“But it’s my pen.”

I look at it, small in my small hands. It’s a teal pen, a Le Pen from Japan. It doesn’t smudge, even if you’re left-handed.

“Yes. I want a pen from Canada.”

A pen from Canada, I think. I look at the stalls along this strip, all of them painted the red-and-white of Coca Cola. Here businesses offer shopkeepers a free paint job on their buildings, and thereafter the conglomerates get free advertising. This entire strip is a big advertisement for Coca Cola. A little further down the road we’ll see the green shops claimed by Doublemint. A pen from Canada. It has a French name and is made in Japan. What is from Canada? What is from Kenya?

John of My Pen offers me a discount on a plate, but we don’t want to be travelling with anything extra right now so I tell him we’ll stop on the way back, and I hope we do. I hang on to my pen. Is this selfish? Should I be less attached to these things? My memory is horrible and I know if I don’t write down what I see I’ll forget. I feel a bit selfish. At this moment I feel privileged to a fault but I love my pen. Maybe I’ll give it to John on our return.

We’re back driving and dropping down onto the floor of the Rift Valley. There’s a sign saying “Beware of Flash Floods”. There’s a crushed car on a pedestal and the sign next to it reads “Slow Down.” Our driver speeds up. Even he isn’t entirely comfortable passing through these small towns. Daniel and I keep our cameras on our laps, below the windows and out of sight.

But we keep our windows open because down here it’s hot. Sunken into the valley the sun will burn you quickly. It torches the thermic landscape. Ben’s radio crackles and sometimes a voice breaks through, someone speaking in Swahili. We drive through the small villages and the smaller villages and past the country house standing alone, and then on to nothing but the burnt umber earth and the small green and browning bushes of the stretching and expanding veldt, almost shimmering in the low altitude African heat, nothing until suddenly here on the valley floor stand two enormous satellite dishes. And after that, nothing again.

Ben’s favourite fruit is the mango. His favourite animals are the giraffe and cheetah, but if we’re talking about what he likes to eat it’s goat, followed by gazelle and zebra. We cross a riverbed bone dry, with bones, and he tells us the bed fills up during the imminent rainy season. We learn more about the bombs, about the recent aggression of the Somalia against Kenya. The first three hours of our trip are on pavement and the last two hours are on rutted old roads. “Now it’s time for a free massage,” he warns us, smiling, as the tarmac falls away behind us.

We’ve booked luxury tents for the safari and we’re expecting something rustic, but as we pull through the Saraova Masai Mara game camp gate, shrouded by a thicket of trees, we’re already revising our expectations. A porter walks over to collect our bags. Another gentleman hands us wet facecloths scented with eucalyptus, to wipe the drive’s dust from our faces and hands. We’ve arrived at lunchtime and so they encourage us to leave our bags at the reception while they fill out paperwork, and they send us into the ... oh wow. Wow. A cheese counter. Oh. Here’s an entire glassed and chilled island of desserts. A woman with beautiful white teeth smiles and asks us if we want soup, and she displays the vegetables she can add to the base for us. Over there is the omelet station. The pasta station. There are darker areas to the west under the thatch I won’t even begin to explore. This place is scopious. I don’t know what you’d call a place like this. It’s an oasis. But it’s excessive too, there’s just so much. Whatever I had has been magnified. All of this is ours. We can eat whatever we want, as much as we want. I’ll never be hungry again. But over the past two days Johns have asked for my shoes and my pen. For anything, something more than what they have which is so little. My guilt has been amplified too, like I’m expanding. Breaking and expanding. Like what hearts should do, over again in life until we’ve become our best selves, is this true? These are thoughts I'll think about on the safari in a couple of hours, driving those meditative rolling green hills straight out of a Hemingway story.




Iten - Part II

Tuesday is track day in Iten and what this means, Hugo tells me, is expect to find 400 to 500 runners doing intervals at 10:00 a.m. today at the Kameriny stadium. He tells me this on our morning run, but the rains are just holding off right now and if the sky opens, morning sessions will be pushed to the afternoon. The track, like the roads, is red dirt and unrunnable when wet. Rains can strike quickly here, though, and move off with the calm even pace of something that knows it just kicked your ass*. A bit of late morning sun will burn off any moisture, and the dust will start to lift again and runners will converge at the track for reasons social as much as athletic. What we’re doing at 6:30 a.m. is the first run of our Kenyan triple. We’ll go to the track at 10:00 a.m., and in the afternoon around 4:30 p.m. we’ll run for the third time today. Like yesterday, near the end of our run it begins to rain.

Back at the guesthouse we’re watching the rain through the bay window overlooking the Rift Valley. It falls softly at first and then it whips and lets up, and we think maybe this is the end of it. The sky is lightening, I’m sure of it, and we zip our jackets and grab our umbrellas. We’ve decided to walk to the track. We want to take photos and we aren’t really training for anything, so we can push our workout to the early afternoon. It’s 4.5km to the track from home, and somewhere out there is Asbel Kiprop, Martin Lel. David Rudisha. These majestic Kenyans runners all coil and flight, 400 to 500 of them, but I’d be happy if I saw only one if that one is Wilson Kipsang. Even just a glimpse. Like spotting a leopard.

But out on the roads the rain starts up again and our shoes slip in the mud. I seek out the gravelly bits to stop from falling, and we make it to Lorna Kiplagat’s café halfway to the track before stopping. Nobody will be running in this. We sit inside the café drinking sugary tea and staring out the window at the sheets of rain streaking across the parking lot, and then we walk home.

In the afternoon the rain has indeed let up. At 4:00 p.m. Daniel and I decide to run to the track for our workout. On the way we catch up to two Kenyans also heading to the track. “I’m not passing them”, Daniel tells me, and I’m not keen to either but they’re running so slowly I don’t know how we can avoid it. We slow down, maybe we’re running 5:15 km pace, and finally we decide we’re going to stop being so self-conscious and just run. We pull up alongside them and they increase their pace to match ours and then they start chatting with us. The tall one tells me he has run very fast. What does that mean, in Kenya, I wonder, and he tells me 28:00 for 10km. In Nairobi, at altitude. Ok so he’s fast, however (and I hate to admit it but) here amongst guys who can run under 27:00 I’m almost disappointed. The guy I really want to see is marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang.

“Thursday”, he tells me.

“Kipsang won’t be here until Thursday?”

“Thursday, yes.”

But we’re leaving Wednesday.

We reach Kamariny stadium and if the altitude hasn’t already done so, the view will leave you breathless. We’re again high up on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley, on a 7-lane dirt track. The stone steps leading up to crumbling stadium stands are so old they look Roman. There’s suddenly no wind, and runners stretch dynamically and jump and sprint and sometimes just move seraphically around the furrowed inner lane of the most spiritual track I’ve ever visited. There’s a man right there running 400m reps in 59 seconds, up on the shoulder of his training partner when it’s his partner’s turn to lead, and gapping him when he leads. That was another 59, and even from this far away it’s clear certain of the earth’s forces bend pivotally around him, one of those beautiful people you feel if you can get close to you’re getting closer to God, and I walk without meaning to walk until I’m tight up trackside before realizing it’s actually Wilson Kipsang himself. Now I’m stunned and have to sit down, and I'm vaguely aware Daniel is sitting beside me, both of us watching Kipsang and silently agreeing we won’t be running another step ourselves until this is over. But he keeps going. Another 59, and his partner is starting to lag. He’s taking about 75 or 80 seconds recovery here at 7800 feet of elevation, some of it walking and some of it jogging, really just circling around the start/finish until he’s ready to go again, and I’m not seeing any extra effort as though he’s anywhere near finished the workout. Well, we’re not doing anything but strides today anyway, so maybe we can do our strides on the track at the same time as Kipsang. We get our legs moving and do a few laps of sprinting the straights and jogging the corners, and then I see that if I jog extra slowly this corner I’ll be able to stride alongside Kipsang for the last 100m of his interval. And I do. For 100m we run stride-for-stride with three lanes separating us. It’s his last interval and I run one more lap before stopping and walking over to him. I’m going to say ‘Hi’. Actually I don’t know what I’m going to say but I need to meet him, and as I approach Kipsang says “Hey Mzungo!” with a big smile. I shake his hand and tell him how loudly I was shouting at my computer screen on September 29th of last year, cheering him on at 3:00 a.m., when he broke the marathon world record. He laughs and tells me a bit about this heavy training he’s in right now, preparing for the London Marathon in April.

* - DFW Girl With Curios Hair.

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Iten - Part I

It’s a 90 minute drive from Mosoriot to Iten. We pass roadside banana sellers, three or four stalls in a row, donkey-drawn carts, stray dogs lying in the red dirt, their bodies heaving under the hot sun. We get pulled over by the police who inspect our van and shine flashlights into our eyes. There are 42 different dialects in Kenya and most tribes understand only their own. Every town has a hotel and butchery and they’re always paired. The butchery and hotel come together. The joke is if you don’t pay your hotel bill… We pass Joy Pub, Hope Pub, pubs promising panacea in these small villages. Here’s Rally’s Hair Saloon, which I think was a mistake. Daniel, shorn, squints to be certain.

When we reach Iten the first thing we see is an arch welcoming us to Iten, “Home of Champions”. This is where we will meet Hugo, the Dutchman who will host us for the next three nights. We pull over and get out of the van. John our 50 year-old driver cues “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers on his phone and puts it on speaker for us. It’s a surreal moment, standing under this arch I’ve read about and has grown in my mind into fable, listening to what was my favourite song when I was a kid. The Gambler record is still at my mum’s place in Ontario, alongside Toto, Duran Duran.

On one side of the road is the London Marathon store. On the other side, Lorna Kiplagat’s high-altitude training camp. Runners pass on both sides, running in both directions, most of them jogging at speeds I could carry but some of them flying past gazelle-like, wiry and lithe and meant for this. Iten has an estimated 1500-2000 full-time professional runners, out of a population of 4000. Nearly half the town. And here they don’t run for health or exercise or pleasure, though they may still enjoy it. They run to earn a living. They run for a way out.

Here under the Iten arch, with Kenny Rogers’ dulcet voice traveling easily through this thin air, Daniel and I are starting to relax. Just being here. We’re letting go of the Mosoriot rain and thunder and mosquitos, and the stray dogs that were agitated and snarled into the night so that we weren’t sure if we should have been more afraid of the dogs or what they were snarling at.

Hugo arrives and carries our luggage to the trunk of his car. He is 37 years old, a 2h12’ marathoner, slight and direct and thoughtful. His wife is Hilda Kibet, herself a 2h24’ marathon and between them a case for the world’s fastest couple. It's a five minute drive to his house, perched on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley, high up at 2400m of elevation. An electric fence runs the perimeter. We’ll be staying in his guesthouse, a two-story, two-bathroom, three-bedroom place he recently finished building. He points down and to the right to Paul Tergat’s house, former marathon world record holder. “And there’s the tenth hill,” he shows us, the hill responsible for Iten’s name. Hill ten.

Daniel and I are excited to run. Once we’ve had a tour of the grounds we dress and head out. I don’t usually run the day after a half marathon race but we don’t want to lose a day here, and the soft ground has preserved us. Ten minutes into our run a Kenyan joins us. He lopes behind silently like he’s running between heartbeats, and a couple of times we look behind to confirm he’s still there. We’ve been told there’s a track ahead but we aren’t sure where. I turn and ask him, and he runs ahead of us and increases the pace. Daniel tells me to go with him. Ten minutes later we reach Lorna Kiplagat’s stadium, the rubberized oval we can use if we buy a membership at $1000 for the year. This is where I’ll turn around. I want to keep going but we’re running with the wind and I know eventually yesterday’s half marathon race will catch up. The Kenyan asks me if I have Facebook. I shake my head. He finds a stick and scratches Eluid Kiptoo into the red dirt, shakes my hand, and starts running again, away along the path beside the road that keeps going 35 km to Eldoret and doesn’t stop there.

St. Paddy’s day arrives without the usual ballyhoo. In the morning I wake to a dark world turning orange, a patriotic band of light spreading straight across the horizon where the Rift Valley arches and meets the sky. We’ve planned our first Kenyan double today, and at 6:30 a.m. we start jogging up the road heading to Lillie’s, the meeting point for most of the local runners. No wind this morning but the air feels heavy. We move our bodies slowly through 45 minutes and see only a few other runners. Near the end of our run it starts to rain. It’s a warm rain so we don’t mind, but it soaks us quickly and the roads become slippery. Back at our place we lean our shoes against the house hoping the sun will appear and dry them. We each brought one pair, and the plan is to give them to a local runner when we leave.

Hugo brings us a thermos of chai shortly after we’re back. The milk is from his cow, milked fresh this morning. He brings us his computer so that we can check email and send a Polo home to those who have been calling Marco for a few days. After a quick shower Daniel and I head to town to find a Guinness. When we first woke this is what I asked him if we could do after our run, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. First though, we stop at a general store to see if they carry SIM cards to fit our phones. They don't, but the owner of the shop takes a bigger one and traces onto it the outline of our card. He cuts the outline, then files it down until it's the exact size we need. We try it but it still doesn't work, and then we feel like fools when we remember our phones are locked. We give him the value of the card, $1.80, and he tells us he'll be able to use the filed card for an unlocked phone.

Guinness time. It’s still before noon and we’re the only patrons in Jumbo pub. We're on the second floor of a three-story building, sitting inside the balcony’s French doors while the wind billows white curtains contrasted with the red dirt roads below, and the place is silent except for someone in the hall mopping up after the night before. There’s a rhythmic swish of the broom and every now and then a motorcycle zips past on the road below, kicking up a bit of dust. The Guinnesses are 500ml and extra strong at 6.5%, and at this altitude one is all we need. They cost us $2.25 each and when I pay the female bartender asks “You’re leaving so soon?” and seems disappointed.

DSC_0028 Love this boy's toy. DSC_0054 View from our Guesthouse balcony. The Stop Cam shirt is a nod to Vancouver Islander Cam Levins, 10 000m Olympian. DSC_0059 Sheep coming down our road.DSC_9633DSC_9673Daniel having a Guinness on St. Paddy's Day at Jumbo Pub. DSC_9685 DSC_9793Hugo's guesthouse, and our home in Iten. DSC_9795 Sunrise from my bedroom.DSC_9814 Daniel looking confident driving on the British side of the road. DSC_9599 DSC_9603Daytime from Hugo's guesthouse balcony. DSC_9607 One of many Hotel and Butcheries.DSC_9624 DSC_9626 DSC_9629


We flew Vancouver-Calgary-Heathrow-Istanbul-Nairobi, and by then two days had passed and it was 3:25 a.m. in Kenya and the rainy season had begun, early for the time of year and early in the morning. We walked across the tarmac from our plane to the concrete lower-level immigrations, our first experience in Africa being getting wet, though it was African rain and not our plain west coast of Canada rain. That made all the difference. Middle of the night in Nairobi and we’d heard the stories, had been warned against being out at night, and so once we’d paid the $50 Visa to get into the country Daniel and I were escorted, by a guard swinging a club, away from all other humans into darker shadows and through what looked like a tear in the wall more than a door frame, and along the side of a shambled building and past the guards with AK-47s to Terminal 3 where we remained, on high alert, until our 7:10 a.m. flight to Eldoret. The terminal wasn’t officially open at that hour but they let us in. We left Victoria on Tuesday and arrived in Mosoriot, 15km from Eldoret, on Friday morning around 8:00 a.m. Daniel wanted to run first thing and I was good with it to shake off some of the travel, having not run for a few days and with the Saturday race a day away. Malleoli disappeared under swelling from the trip. Ankles no longer distinct and tapered down from the calves but lower legs plummed straight. Legs now stumpy and heavy, and shockingly white against the red dirt roads and the Kenyans who cheered and sometimes laughed as we stumbled down the road. Children shouted "How are you?" and if you answered "Fine" they shouted again "How are you?", more of a greeting and test of their voices and the English language, and wanting to hear our voices respond, than an actual question. Sometimes the children joined us, laughing and smiling and adorable. This was just a 30 minute jog.

It rained all Friday. The tarmac road that runs through Mosoriot to Eldoret is the only paved road. All offshoots and parallel roads are red dirt.  From the tarmac the red dirt banks down into a gully and the rains clear the dust from the air and wash it down onto the red roads turning it to clay, which sludges into the gully. It's not a day for good shoes. The dirt roads and embankments don't absorb water so much as create a slick so that it becomes nearly impossible to run. On the rainy days Kenyans will travel to find paved roads for their workouts. Rob started thinking he would have to cancel Saturday's race.

But on Saturday we woke to sunny skies. The race was scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. so Daniel and I walked over to the site just before then thinking we would use the first couple of kilometers of the race as our warm up. By 9:00 a.m. the race still hadn't begun. An official from the notoriously corrupt Kenyan Athletics gave a long pre-race speech to all the racers, telling us we're only cheating ourselves if we duck into a bush and rejoin the race when it passes again on a multiple loop course, or if we know a shortcut and take it. I haven't ever considered either of those during a race and it occurs to me it takes a certain type of mind to think it's even a possibility and so to warn against it. The athletes themselves just want to test their abilities against other racers. In my race, the half marathon, the only prize is a handshake and a bolstering of one's pride and from my experience nearly every runner respects their competitors in a comrade and hardship way.

Some of the runners blasted away at the start and I rolled out at 3:46 for the first 1km, thinking I'd start conservatively and build into it. Last year I ran 3:11 pace for half marathons, and at Mosoriot's altitude this should translate to 3:20 - 3:25 pace once adapted. By 30 minutes I'd worked my way down to 3:39 average pace, and only 10 seconds up the road was the top mzungo, a 2h17' marathoner from Germany. At that point things felt pretty good and I figured I would stalk the German and try to work him a bit over the second half. The race is called a half marathon but that gives the false impression it's on roads. These red dirt roads are more like cross-country. They're soft and cambered and rutted and rocky, and if they're wet they are slick, and the roads the race organizers chose for the race rarely ran straight or flat. Mostly they went up or down, left or right, and sometimes there were cows on them, skinny cows, not like North American cows. These ones were hungry and docile and you could see their ribs.

Then we hit a 2.2km long hill climbing 120 meters. I hadn't adapted to the altitude and I'd barely slept in three nights, and it all seemed to catch up rather quickly. Once the road flattened out and I could look ahead at the runners rather than down at my feet, I could barely see the German, and I was running with the eventual 4rth place female runner. My lungs weren't really taking in much air and my head was starting to spin the way it spins if you hold your breath too long, like two minutes or more, that kind of feeling, a feeling more black than white. We dropped down a treacherous hill and the 4rth place woman was sweet and pointed to the ground warning me of the bigger rocks, because by then I was following her and barely hanging on.

I'd passed a few Kenyan men during the race but during the out-and-back portion I couldn't see a single man behind me, and I was later told many of the Kenyans will stop and pretend to tie a shoe, or just drop out, if they aren't having a good race. They'll push until they break, if they ever do break, and then they would save themselves for the next race rather than continue pushing and there's a certain logic to that. What I did see were scores of men ahead of me, enough to field a few Red Rover teams, plus two other women (I'd moved up to third woman), and I think I'd have been lucky to be in the top 100 overall.

We entered the finishing field at 20km and the last 1km was zig-zagging up and down this field to make up the full half marathon distance. There were a few mounds of dirt on the field which I had trouble running up, sometimes just cresting them before my momentum stopped. If I was 3:39 average pace 30 minutes into the race, and at the finish I was 3:54 average, it meant I ran 4:04 pace for the last 13km of the race. It felt as hard as 3:20 pace back in Victoria.

I loved hurting like that, loved suffering the unique way hills and altitude and challenging conditions can make you suffer, when leg speed isn't a factor and lungs and heart are all that matter.

I'll write about the trip in these three stages: Mosoriot, then Iten, then the safari. Three very different chapters.


DSC_9588Driver John's driver's license.

DSC_9498School in Mosoriot.

DSC_9537Warriors' dance.DSC_9582Rift Valley Marathon.DSC_9481Runner in the kid's race.DSC_9471First and second celebrating their positions in the kid's race. DSC_9452Men's marathon winner.DSC_9461Daniel is congratulated by the chief of police.DSC_9548Daniel with his award.DSC_9424Arsenal needs all the support they can get right now. DSC_9422Children in Mosoriot.DSC_9360School children.DSC_9356DSC_9340DSC_9337


There’s a most annoying sound in the world scene in Dumb and Dumber, and this is what I’m thinking about lying in the MRI machine at the Victoria General Hospital while it makes increasingly louder and more grating noises. The alarm sound of a large truck backing up. The machine gun strafing of, Christ, it sounds like a war zone in here. A train coming fast from far away, slamming through the darkness, through crossings of warning signals and horns. We’re checking on the progress of my MS, scanning both brain and cervical spine. I haven’t been examined in three years. The machine jostles and signals alarms like someone exiting a back door, an escape door. All that technology and they haven’t figured out how to run a quiet scan. Still, despite the noise and movements when the technician asks me what music I’d like to listen to, I tell her not to bother; I’ll fall asleep. And I do. There's something about this process I find almost relaxing. Forty minutes lying still capturing thinly-sliced photos of my brain, looking for lesions. We’re hoping, of course, that there’s nothing new. No new hot white spots, areas of concern. But I won’t hear the results for three weeks. When I leave the hospital I go straight home to pack for Kenya. The past two weeks have been a frenzy of getting tickets, vaccines, medication for malaria. Charging camera batteries, setting up schedules for athletes. I am able to jam my stuff into two carry-on bags. Shirts and shoes I don’t intend to bring home, sunscreen, and insect repellent because if I am smitten with yellow fever or malaria I might not be coming home (my neurologist strongly advised I don’t take any ‘live’ vaccines like the one for yellow fever). Daniel, who will travel with me, picks me up from home a couple of hours later and we catch the 3:00 p.m. ferry to Vancouver. On the ferry I break the zipper on my only jacket. I spill a drink on my sweater. Already the trip is changing me. How different will my stuff look, how different will I look in a couple of weeks? How different will I feel?

Wednesday morning, waking in some hotwire hotel in Richmond, BC. A highway of commuters stop-and-starting past our window, stalling, honking. We leave today, early afternoon, and arrive Friday in the middle of the night in Nairobi. When the airport opens the next day we’ll catch the first flight to Eldoret. A day after we arrive we’ll be racing a half marathon. Not racing, more like running. 2400 meters of elevation, 30 degrees Celsius, after two nights without a bed. Participating. Just getting my shoes red with dirt, getting a feel of the land. An intimate look at Mosoriot and some of the runners who live in the Rift Valley, Kenya.


Dvorák quartet Op.96 ‘The American’ Largo is what I’m listening to this spring-like morning, coming home from my workout, tightroping the thin strip of grass between sidewalk and road. High-stepping to avoid tree roots exposed by years of subtropical winters. Icing the mind, is how I like to think of it, this music. This process. A classical movement in Largo tempo, complex and calming, bringing the mind back down after a hard run the way you would bring the legs back down by taking an ice bath. The way the ER nurse would case you in ice if you ran a sudden fever. Shooting straight along a mile stretch home, feeling good, resisting the desire to speed up. The first of the Cherry blossoms starting to appear. No lyrics to distract me. To anchor me. How a certain song will start you thinking about a woman. No lyrics leading me down a path, and so untethered alongside this Dvorák movement I’m thinking about Kenya. The vaccines I’ll have to get, how quickly things will need to fall in place if I am going to be there by March 15 for the race. Eldoret. Mosoriot. Now this late morning sun, and in a few hours a consultation with a travel advisor and a doctor, and in less than two weeks flying into Nairobi. Possibly. These are childhood dreams. Walls of bedrooms mosaics of World and Olympic champions. Dreams so far away they’re gossamer, disappearing even as you revisit them. They’ve named running shoes after the Rift Valley. Nike Eldoret, Nike Rift. I've named a pair. My Kipsang shoes, the same ones he wore when he set the marathon world record. Wilson Kipsang from the Keiyo district, Rift Valley, Kenya. Do you think I haven’t seen Asbel Kiprop banded to a tree running through sets of drills during a deluge, the water teeming down so fast and heavy the camera can barely pick up his outline, then emerging in the summer ready to threaten a world record? Violins, viola, cello. Do you think I haven’t heard the promises of a Kenyan sweep, and then watched them deliver, in Frankfurt, Delhi, New York? In Tokyo, Warsaw, San Vittore Olona. One, two, three. You want to eat their foods, be razed by their workouts, so tired in the afternoons your naps are narcoleptic, before your third run of the day. Dreams so long ago. Transformed into something new, something brighter and more hopeful. Runners stay runners, but also become landscapes, ideas. They merge with one's soul.


That was a rough one. I can’t even say it felt awful. Sure I didn’t have much verve over the first half, but then I started to find a bit of rhythm and was able to push hard over the second half. Felt like I was moving well, like maybe that 34:42 split at halfway was deceptive and I was going to burn to the finish like something returning to our atmosphere. Ahead along the great arc of the seawall I could see third place, his white cap, 50 seconds up at the half, now down to 40 seconds, and I was detaching myself from fifth so I felt confident I could stay in the money. Maybe even move up. I thought this is a good pace. If I hold this to the finish and run low 1:08 that’s a good sign, and I’ll probably buy a ticket to my fast race. Then 5km went by and I hadn’t really gotten much faster. The wind was blowing in off the Georgia Straight now, but it was nothing someone knife-like like me would have to worry about. The forecast was for something horrific, maybe rain but more likely snow, and three degrees with an objectionable wind, but we didn’t get anything like that. I think it was five degrees. Some wind off the Straight but nothing fierce; it seemed to be mostly at our backs. The sun broke through.

With 2km remaining I saw Kelly Wiebe standing at the side of the bike path, banged up from slipping on the Seawall early in the race. Left knee dark from blood and dirt. He ran with me for a bit but he was in too much pain to continue. There’s stands a guy with a 1h04’ personal best, who could have jogged home and stayed ahead of me. Jeremy Deere was now in second and I was in third. He wasn’t far ahead but I’d gone glacial, barely moving now, splitting my slowest 5km yet. At the turn for home he looked behind and he knew he’d get this one; we’d had some good races in the past and if we were close he would always outkick me. Every single time. He’d turn on the jets and it’d be over. At the 2001 World Athletics Championships in Edmonton his fans stood in the stands with a sign reading Nothing runs like a Deere.

1:09:39 at the finish. My last two half marathons have been my two slowest. I’m 41 and know I won’t be getting faster, but I still refuse to believe I’ve lost nearly three minutes in a year. That’s fairytale stuff. And on the bus ride home with these recent races stinging, it should be criminal to feel this good. Rain strafing the bus. Passengers so tightly stuffed that four near the door have to step off just to let those whose stop it is disembark. Just to make room for movement. Rain striking so hard now it feels like summer, so stormy and humid with these exhausted passengers and the dead bus air. Ben Howard on my iPod singing Black Flies, and it’s lifting me like I’m discovering music. These are the first lyrics I’ve heard. The first time a man’s voice breaks. I don’t have any races planned. I’ll just keep working at this.


Midday sun hitting the window and flaring, not quite reaching my table. Stopping at the chair opposite mine. The National on low over the speakers; three cafés in two days playing The Boxer. The lunch crowd packed and gone, back to offices, Government employees these, nearly all of them. A post-bomb radius of empty tables around me, the few occupied ones on the circumference. Against the bar, against the window, far enough from my table they look flung. Three young women and one dessert to share. A Japanese student with a black bow in her hair, pink-framed glasses, reaches into her purse, pulls out a mirror and tucks back an escaped strand of hair. Runs a thin manicured finger across her left eyebrow. Contemplates for a moment, then runs her finger across the other eyebrow.

In 2012 no Pulitzer was awarded for fiction. Train Dreams, a novella by Denis Johnson, was shortlisted for the prize. It was his second time in the final three. Twelve pages remaining.

The First Half half marathon is two days hence. Halfway in to last year’s race I was on Canadian Master’s half marathon record pace, 33:16 through the split. Before the race I wasn’t sure Boyd’s record was assailable. He was enjoyable to watch. One of the longest careers in Canadian history, if any of us can really call running a career at our speeds. A 1:06:33 half marathon on a record eligible course when he was in his early forties. At 50 years old he won the Canadian Master’s cross-country championships. The guy just wasn’t slowing down. Still the same power and knee lift he’d had when he ran away from the best 10 000m runners in the country in 1998, en route to winning the national track championships. Broke free from the pack early and hid a curve ahead, and nobody could catch him. Outspoken, opinionated, sharp. In a conversation with him you’re accountable for every word you speak.

I’d hoped to be able to threaten his record, but our bodies become such temperamental things as we age. Sometimes we can get close to our former levels of performance. More often, that transcendent level of performance eludes us. For a variety of reasons. Most simply don’t give racing the same courtesy. It doesn’t mean as much anymore, priorities have changed. Some of our intensity has been mollified, or diverted into other pursuits. Tendons instrument-tight. Muscles just not firing as rapidly or consistently as when we were beautiful. And then I just straight up don’t have Boyd’s kind of talent. Weather, course, competition all would need to be near-perfect, if I’m going to run that fast. At last year’s finish I surprised myself missing the mark by only 30 seconds. It was as close as I would get all year.

On Sunday I could maybe run 1h08’ - 1h08’30”. I don’t think I’m anywhere near last year’s 1h07’03” fitness. Still. I’m interested in this race partly as a harbinger for the season; if I run well enough I’ll consider flying somewhere flat and warm to chase Boyd’s mark. Somewhere that’d ignite the spirit. Lisbon, Vienna. Somewhere you have to run fast if you’re on the startline, because look at all those eyes looking back. I’d go somewhere I could feel important for one last time, like I’m doing a job. Travelling for a job.