The 8am morning air is crisp and a light wind bites at my exposed skin as we gather. My shoes laces are carefully double knotted. The number 1664 is neatly safety pinned to the front my favourite electric blue Mountain Equipment Coop shirt. The atmosphere seems charged. Everything seems new as I stare out the window of a yellow school bus over the open Prince Edward County roads. We head to the starting line. A 21 km run to the finish.
“I hate running. I will never enjoy it,” I had said 12 years ago when I dropped out of grade 11 gym class because the first month and a half were all road runs. To me it was torture. So I took a spare instead.
At the same time I was in high school English classes that repeatedly brought down my grade point average. A trend that carried through university, culminating in me having to write an English Language Competency Exam half way through my first year because my marks were too low. So there I was in a lecture hall surrounded mostly by exchange students as we tried to prove we knew English.
“I hate writing. I will never like it,” I said.
Not only writing but four years later after 17 years of straight academia I was done with school.
“I hate school. I’m never going back,” I said as I walked out of my last final exam of Trinity Western University.
The truth is I probably hated running and writing because they were so much work for me and I felt I would never be any good at either.
The pack starts moving forward and we are off. I move into a slow rhythmic jog, making sure to pace myself as I have no idea what I’m getting into. In a grade 5 track meet I had run the 400 metre race and sprinted off the line because some man had told me I would never beat the girl beside me, she was too fast. It was probably her dad but I was bound and determined to prove him wrong. For the first 100 metres I really showed that guy. If only the race had ended there. I finished dead last.
As the sun produces an almost blinding glare off the Bay of Quinte to my right, I think back to the Zambian sun casting an evening glow as I ran laps around the back yard in Lusaka. I had started running months earlier as coping method for stress. But now it was something different. It had become as much a spiritual time as a physical one as I sensed God’s presence so tangibly as I ran. This is where God and I had our best conversations. I now loved to run.
Part way through my time in Zambia I connected with a relative I hardly knew at all. Richard was my mom’s cousin. A teacher. A writer. A runner. On September 16, 2007 he wrote:
“Think seriously about something I told you a few months ago. Try writing. (Okay, you might need a job to support yourself for a while.) But seriously, start writing. Use humour as a genre. You have the talent and the imagination. Put the two together.
Richard was one of those people you couldn’t help but be drawn to. With his thick rimmed glasses and slender frame he was one of those people who embraced life. He was characterized by his love of forwarding humorous emails. He was the teacher that everyone loved, even if you hated school. He had a gift in writing and regularly reviewed and evaluated books for the Ministry of Education. He was also a runner. A crazy runner. One of those people who ran ultra marathons…we’re talking 100km. And he did this in his 60’s. If there was a spokesperson for having a zest for life it was Richard.
He was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that attacked his stomach, esophagus, and lymph nodes. He was determined to keep going, even running in his frail physical state. In December of 2009 his earthly existence was ended much to early.
Four months earlier I had packed up and moved across the country to Belleville, Ontario, a small city of the Bay of Quinte and home to the best photojournalism program in Canada. I was back in school. I was writing. And in the evenings I would run…and not because I was being chased either.
Fatigue is looming and I think of Richard. I don’t know what I believe about those in heaven being aware of us here on earth but I ask God to make sure Richard knew what I was doing. It was inspired by him.
This is the farthest I’ve ever run. A once unattainable feat in my own mind, the end is right in front of me. With one final burst of speed I sprint (at least that’s what it felt like to me) to the finish line, crossing over into new beginnings.
Lesson learned. Never say never.