My friend and long-time running partner Doug Alward has a sprawling property on Mount Thom above Chilliwack. A couple of weeks ago, he invited me to come and watch the Olympics with him.
(Warning: This is a long post. If you just want to read the “mad dog” story, scroll down to the italics in colour near the bottom.)
No visit with Doug could be complete without a workout. We’ve both been too injured lately to run, and Doug told me he’d been training hard on his $20 garage-sale bike.
I put my bike in my car one hot morning and drove to Chilliwack. Doug and I met in a big mall; the plan was to ride along the Vedder River trails, and then drive up the mountain to his place.
We took the back roads of Chilliwack to get to the Vedder River. Our pace was leisurely, as the route was winding and we occasionally had to stop for street crossings. By the time we reached the perfectly flat gravel trails, I was raring to inject some speed. Doug told me to go ahead. I rode hard for a few kilometres, thinking he couldn’t keep up with me, but he was actually just giving me a false sense of complacency. When the trail became narrower and more winding, he was right behind me.
We continued on together before deciding on a turnaround point. On the way back, we took a brief detour on the Heron Trail, then chose a scenic spot by the river to stop for a snack. I had forgotten to bring any food, and was grateful to see Doug’s generous provisions. He had what seemed a huge number of watermelon slices, containers of black beans, and about six hard-boiled eggs covered with a spicy pepper mix. No GUs for him! The crisp watermelon was the perfect refreshment for a hot day. I declined the beans but gratefully accepted a couple of eggs—never has a hard-boiled egg tasted so good!
We pushed the pace pretty hard (I thought) once we got back to the main wide, straight trail. But Doug gave me a taste of what was to come the next day when he blasted by me in the last kilometre of the trail and my tired legs could give nothing more.
Doug and I spent the hot afternoon just hangin’ out. I discovered right away that he doesn’t eat meals, but grazes more or less continuously on a simple, healthy variety of foods consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, boiled eggs, steamed rice and fish, beans, nuts, and oatmeal. He uses no condiments or sauces of any kind other than a few spices including pepper, turmeric, and cinnamon. In his kitchen I found no trace of sugar or any sweetened food. (Doug has some health reasons for following this diet.) I was thankful I had brought a loaf of chia fruit bread, but I longed for the butter I usually slather on it.
Another kind of abstinence was a welcome relief; Doug has no internet connection. I couldn’t feed my online addictions any more than I could fulfill my chocolate cravings. I could have done editing work since I had my computer with my Word files, but I decided to take a complete break. I was reminded of cottage vacations over the years; the way the pace of life and the nature of social interactions were different without TVs, computers, or (most of the time) phones.
Of course Doug’s two TVs were welcome now as we could follow the Olympics on two channels simultaneously. We ended up glued to CBC for the whole evening track session. I was finally watching track and field, after seeing nothing of the first five days of competition other than the incredible women’s 10,000m. I had been overwhelmed with work. Now I relished watching every event: the decathlon, the hurdle sprints, the 1500m semis—but most of all, the men’s 200m semifinal.
To me the semifinal with Andre De Grasse and Usain Bolt delivered the single best moment of the Olympics. Bolt “bolted” right from the gun; he was well ahead of everyone coming off the turn. De Grasse was unimpressive. But he made what looked like an impossible come-from-behind run in the second half of the race, pulling up almost even with Bolt as Bolt eased into the line. They turned to look at each other; they grinned; it was wonderful to see the juxtaposition of these men’s speed with their relaxed confidence at the end. Here, in “the picture that tells a thousand words” was the joy of running, the generosity and camaraderie of competition, reflected in the two beaming faces.
By the mystery of serendipity, Doug had been talking about his philosophy of competition just before we watched De Grasse and Bolt run their semifinal. A few years ago Doug participated in a World Masters Championships meet in Kamloops. He described this as one of the highlights of his lifetime of running. He said that one thing he’s learned about competing is that you don’t do it only for yourself. You are also giving your best for your competitors. It may seem contradictory, this idea that you try to help your competitors. But it comes with the recognition that all of us who train so hard, who know the body’s suffering so well, who experience the euphoria and despair of competition, share an athletic intimacy that is incomprehensible to those who don’t give 100%. It is only in competition that we find the deepest reserves within ourselves.
The Rio 2016 Games were exceptional for instances of outstanding sportsmanship. In the women’s 5,000m heats, American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin collided and fell to the track. D’Agostino was back on her feet first, and urged Hamblin get up and continue racing. Hamblin responded to D’Agostino’s encouragement, but it turned out that the American had suffered the more serious injuries from the fall (a torn ACL and meniscus). Her knee weakness caused her to fall again. This time Hamblin was the one entreating her competitor to finish the race, which D’Agostino bravely did, though she had to be carried off the track.
In the grueling 50K race walk, Canadian Evan Dunfee was awarded a bronze medal after the third-place finisher, Japan’s Hirooki Arai, was disqualified for bumping Dunfee not long before the finish. After the Japanese coaches appealed the decision, Arai was reinstated in third place. Dunfee took this decision with a grace and good sportsmanship that make us proud to be fellow Canadians. In one interview I heard, Dunfee said that Arai deserved the bronze. Moreover, Dunfee expressed a huge enthusiasm about his Olympic experience and the support he’d received from countless Canadians who heard what happened. He saw the publicity generated by the incident as being a boost for the sport of race walking, because it greatly increased the public’s understanding of its extreme physical demands.
When track was over for the evening it was getting close to sunset, but I wanted to hike to the summit of Mt. Thom as I’d done with Doug on a previous visit. It is 2K to the top from his place—part of the route on the road, and the rest in wooded trails. I noticed he carried a can of bear spray. He said he always carried it on walks or runs around his mountain neighbourhood—and that he’d had to use it once, when an unrestrained dog threatened a vicious attack.
There was quite a crowd of people at the summit! No wonder—the views of Chilliwack, the surrounding farmland, and nearby Cultus Lake were magical in the twilight.
After a restless night I woke while it was still dark. I could hear muffled sounds of a TV, and realized it must be after 5:30, when the Olympic coverage (triathlon, decathlon) was due to begin. Sure enough, when I got to the living room Doug was eating oatmeal and watching the action. The 10K run of the triathlon was in its early stages.
Doug invited me to finish the still-hot porridge in the pot. It was the best I’ve ever tasted! He had mixed together oatmeal, Red River cereal, lots of ground almonds, and mashed banana. I was thankful for the leftover Starbucks coffee I had saved from the previous day since there was no hope of getting any coffee at Doug’s.
We watched the Brownlee twins, Brits Alistair and Jonny, suffer through the extreme heat of Rio at midday. What a ridiculous time to make people do a triathlon. Alistair broke away from his brother around 3K from the finish; just before the line, with a sizeable lead, he turned around and waited for Jonny to approach the line before they crossed slowly, almost together.
Now, suitably pumped with food, coffee, and inspiration, I was ready (I thought!) for our morning bike ride on the mountain. We had to squeeze it in between 6:20 and 7:20 so we wouldn’t miss any of the track coverage.
Riding with mad dogs
The sun hadn’t yet risen over the mountain peaks as we began our ride, but I could feel the heat from the previous day rising from the pavement. Doug mercifully chose to give me five minutes of downhill riding as a warmup. It wasn’t much of a warmup for the enormous hill climb that followed.
We were a few minutes into the climb. I was in my lowest gear, breathing hard, but Doug was still able to make conversation. “There used to be a mad dog living at this house coming up on the left,” he said. “I was always worried the thing was going to escape from its yard and attack me—but I haven’t seen it for about six months.”
Just then we heard menacing barking. “Maybe it’s back,” said Doug. The barking continued, though we couldn’t see the dog. We were now at the steepest part of the hill; I was struggling. The grade of the hill eased slightly as we passed the driveway of the house on the left. “Sprint past this house now!” ordered Doug, as he quickly gained several metres on me.
“I can’t!” I gasped. I was at my limit already… and the climb wasn’t over yet!
But no dog emerged. I was granted a brief respite because Doug’s chain fell off. I was able to ride slowly to the top of the hill and take a minute-long break while he fixed his bike.
The rest of the ride was a blur of pain, broken up by the ecstatic downhill stretches during which I marvelled in a limited way at the magnificent vistas offered by the mountain scenery. Mostly I had to concentrate on staying in control of my bike at top speed, or grinding it out on yet another uphill. Doug wasn’t waiting for me; he was well ahead, though still in sight. I was desperately trying to stay close while feeling nauseous from the intensity of the effort. Finally, at an intersection he waited for me, and informed me that we had just completed one of his regular hill loops. “My record is 8:47 but today I did it in 9:20. Your time was around 10:00,” he said generously.
After that ten minutes of torture we still had another huge uphill to get back to the house (I remembered, with regret, our fabulous downhill start). Once again Doug got far ahead of me. Once again I heard the barking of mad dogs. This time I could see them. The two of them were barking furiously, running along the inside of their yard’s fence as if desperate to escape and attack the cyclists invading their territory. I wished Doug was closer to me. I opened my mouth to try to yell at him, but all that came out was a pitiful squeaky sound: “DOUG…!”
We made it back safely. It was a short but intense ride. Doug was quite pleased he had got the better of me. We are both born competitors.
A couple of hours later, after our morning dose of Olympics viewing, we stood outside in the sunny driveway as I prepared to leave. The day’s heat was starting to come on, but the light wind was causing gold leaves to rain down all around us, a harbinger of the next season.
I thought about how our coach George, gone now for four years, would have been impressed by Doug’s Spartan training camp on the mountain. George, who loved to run 400s all-out and then “eat grass” after collapsing in the infield. He would have loved that bike ride. He certainly would have approved of Doug’s super-healthy diet!
As we said goodbye, I realized anew that friendships forged during the repetition of countless hard workouts and races, where each person learns the full mettle of the other, can endure forever. Age diminishes the power of our youthful selves, but our spirits stay the same.