vancouver Archive

Blog, Churchill 2014, Running

Vancouver Canada Day 10k, race report

spirit park trailSmall world. You travel half way across the top of the globe to take on Vancouver’s finest* in the Run Canada Day 10k, and what’s actually going through your mind on the start line is the need to beat the guy from Wallington in the Great North Run t-shirt.

To be fair, Vancouver’s best weren’t going to be beat (by me, anyway). The eventual winner of the 10k through Pacific Spirit Park was Tony-Carter lookalike Jeremiah Johnson, who won in 33:11, about five minutes ahead of the 2nd place runner. Second place was a Kenny Mac-lookalike, Adam Morgan, six foot something and lithe, and when the gun went, they both flew off, leaving the rest of us to battle out for the rest of the top ten.

33:11 on this course? This hot day? That was some going. I went out for a quick reconnoitre (as they say in this bilingual city) of the last mile of the course, which was an easy incline, although if I’d feel the same after 9k was debatable. I was already suffering with the humidity and heat – by 10am, when the races (beginning with the kids’ 1k) got underway, it would be in the low-20s, and climbing.

And climbing. And climbing. Although not, the race organiser at Vancouver’s Running Room, warned us, until 5k, as the first half was downhill through the trails of Spirit Park, so to not go out too fast and pace it. We’d also be overtaking the fun runners/walkers on the 5k race before us, so to keep an eye out as we were letting the brakes off down the slopes.

Once the 5k runners were off the first straight road, the 10k runners lined up and waited for the lead bike. I had a funny feeling I might do okay. Despite my chronic hip strain seeming to have moved from the right leg to the left in the past two weeks, apart from the first twenty or so runners, the field didn’t look very fast. And so it turned out – or, my increase in training in the past few weeks, with a firm foundation of Pilates over the last six months laid (Pilates is absolutely the future people. Fill your glutes!) is starting to pay off.

Fortunately most of the race was in the shade of the magnificent Pacific Spirit Park trails. This is a park that sits next to the campus of UBC, but was part of the traditional Musqueam peoples’ territory. During my reccy earlier I’d stopped for what I realise now was a rather sacrilegious pee in the forest, and having stopped running for a few moments I was struck by the absolute silence of the place. It was a good place to find that peace of mind that running in nature, whether it be fells, trails, beach, mountains, can provide. Although there wasn’t going to be much of that after 4.3k.

Because at 4.3k that’s where the climb began. Up to that point I’d gone well. Turning into the first corner in about 12th, I picked off the two Swedes, and the heavy Wallington boots of my fellow Brit were nowhere to be heard. Then over the next 3k I slowly reeled in a Gateshead Conrad lookalike (what is it with all the lookalikes?) who I’d expected more of, for all the handshakes on the start line, and then also took a guy wearing a Spartathlon headband. But it was downhill and I was making the most of the freedom to breathe in the shade of the tall pines.

Then we turned. It wasn’t a straight uphill but a twisty-turny climb, all the more difficult for not being able to see the crests of the rises. About 5k we left the shelter of the trees and hit the road, where the heat and the climb really hit hard. Luckily we were only off for 500m or so, before we turned back into the park, but then also back up. Even so, I managed to pull in the guy in front of me, until about 7k when the hilly run got the better of me, and he pulled away. I looked behind to see if I could see Conrad/Spartathlon guy, to be surprised to see a runner in yellow.

Over the next kilometre he reeled me in, especially as around 8k the race took a deep incline followed by the related climb. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect. This was a really well looked after trail, solid and dry, and even though I had an ankle-wobble around the corner, that was my only mishap. It was enough to let the guy behind me pull me in, however, and when we next left the trails and got back onto the road, I let him take me, with the plan to sit on his shoulder.

Mentally, here’s where I made my mistake. Because I’d planned my long run back to the other side of town to follow the race, I had an excuse for not giving it everything. It was too easy an excuse, and he pulled away. Only five seconds gap or so, but it was enough. Luckily, when we finished, I discovered he was in the 40-49 category, so it wouldn’t have made a difference to getting a top 3 in the 30-39 category. Even so, it was a mental error in a race, one not to be made again.

The final kilometre was back onto the road and into Wesbrook Village and a twisty, turny path up to the finish line. I ungraciously barged my way past two slow finishers on the 5k (a mother and her six year old; hang your head in shame, young man) for a finishing time of 41:36. That’s a way off the PB, but on this course, in this heat, I was pleased with that, and knew I’d have a top 10 finish. Fourth M30-39, and most importantly for general reputation, first international finisher, all in the TBH vest. See all the results here.

A well organised, enjoyable race and a good way to start the tour of Canadian and US races over the next few weeks. Next up: the Windhorse Half Marathon in Bellingham on Saturday 19th July. Prizes for all runners are Mongolian khadags. As they say in these parts, “Go Figure, ay.”

* not actually the reason I’m here, boss. It’s work.

Image (c) of the magnificently named Presley Perswain

First published on

Churchill 2014, Running

Running the Trail, Vancouver

I knew I was in trouble when I asked for their times. Patrick was sub-36m for the 10k, 1.18 for the half and 2.49 for the marathon. Unluckily (for him) he’s been out for three years with a torn patella tendon. He’s currently undergoing a new form of blood surgery which should supercharge a recovery. Sheila, however, was more than willing to take me out for a trail run. A former member of the V-Fac coached by John Hill, her PB was 36m for the 10k and sub-3hrs for the marathon. As a Vet she is a formidable runner. Both trained regularly on the steep sides of Lynn Canyon. Oh, good then.

I wasn’t to worry though, she said. She’d not been out enough recently: a new job and other life travails had gotten in the way. She was sure I would be fitter. I looked up to the mountains on the other side of Burrard Inlet. The mountains clad in a thin strip of cloud. Rainy, rainy Vancouver. That’s where we were heading, she said. Hills? Hills. Trails? Trails. Okay, then.

That was going to be Saturday morning. Friday I warmed up with a 14-miler around Stanley Park and English Bay at the far west end of downtown Vancouver. Stanley Park is cut in two by the Causeway that takes people out to West Vancouver, the expensive area, and North Vancouver, where people have begun to move now they cannot really afford to live in central Vancouver any more. The Lions Gate Bridge’s history is itself linked to wealth. The Guinness family had their summer homes over in West Vancouver, and to make it easier to reach they invested to have the bridge built. Now it’s a rush hour ruin, and to get to the North Shore mountains it’s easier to take another bridge further along the bay. That’s if you want to get out there during the week after work. And why would you not want to? Stanley Park is fine, and a great regular, close-by track. I ran around its edge and saw herons and an eagle (but no seals). But the mountains are the mountains. It’s why people live in Vancouver.

So Saturday morning, having Vitamixed the green smoothie and downed the Vega Prepare pre-run energy mix, I met Sheila outside the Vancouver Aquatic Centre at 830am and we headed to the mountains.

On the drive over we discussed what seemed to be a common topic for runners in both Canada and the UK: why aren’t people as good as they used to be in the 70s and 80s? Despite the advances in technology, shoes, training science, nutrition and psychology, as well as general improvements in health and longevity, the American and European long-distance runners have been going backwards, in terms of times. It seems also the arguments are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. That there is more choice for people in terms of sport; not as many people are running. And they are not running as much, in terms of distance. Where people used to train twice a day as normal, or run between work and training, and do many more non-sedentary jobs, nowadays people train less, sit down more, and run fewer miles. There are less good people in the top bracket (sub 2.40hr marathon runners) and so not as much competition or people to learn from.

lynn canyonIt was a cool, wet morning. It had rained overnight, but had stopped. We were some of the earliest people to the canyon. Just us, twenty or so fire-fighters practising abseiling off the suspension bridge, and half a dozen Twitchers with very high-calibre camera gear trained on the marvellously nonchalant young woodpecker poking its crested red head out of a hole at the top of a dead pine trunk fifty feet above us.

We began the run downhill, and then down steps, to the bridge over the Twin Falls, a yellow torrent that made me think of what mashed potato would look like if it were fizzy, and then into one of the loops. That began with a long, steep uphill. I let Sheila do most of the talking as I struggled to pull myself into a rhythm. We weren’t running at any great pace, but this was the beginning of the run, I shouldn’t be out of breath yet! I could feel yesterday’s 14-miler and the slightly broken, jetlagged sleep, more in my lungs than in my legs. I didn’t think it could be an altitude thing, although straight away, from the regular mist, it was clear even to a novitiate such as myself that we were running through cloud.

But once we got going, the reason why we were running here, and not through the city, began to exert itself. I could see it in the way Sheila opened up to the trail. As with all good runners who I’m lucky enough to run with, I tried to watch her form. She used her arms particularly well, and rotated the thoracic spine well as she hopped over roots and rocks. Downhill she took the lead, having a lower centre of gravity that I did, and let her stride extend to a full pace. We spoke about the quality of downhill runners, and compared ‘trail’ to ‘fell’ running, where of course discussion of quality runners such as John ‘The Badger’ Tollitt came up, and how proper off-road runners lean into the descent and let their feet tuck in under them as their body leads the way. It’s not unlike downhill skiing, explained Sheila. No wonder I stopped at snowboarding, I thought. Downhill skiing terrified me.

We ran up and around a number of loops, and while my sense of geography and lay is normally quite good what threw me were the inclines and descents, the ups and downs. It felt at times like one of those magic stair paintings—I swore we only went up and up and up, and yet then without the down, down and down we were at the same beginning of the loop. Not so, I was told, and then we took again the descent, the long, steep, fast run that I’d forgotten about but felt a whole lot better—and braver—about, second time down. We came back to the start of the Rice Lake Loop and then headed for the suspension bridge, forgetting we couldn’t get across it because of the fire-fighters. So we came back again and headed another way, jumping from foot to foot over the rooty, rocky, trail floor, all the while being brazened by the pinch of pine and uplift of moss in the air, being among the green without want or care.

Taking all the loops made me think about something the ‘runner geographer’ Hayden Lorimer had said to me during a break at the Run3Fest at UCL a few days before. He’s working on a (popular, not academic) book about running based on, or rather growing from, the essay he did for Radio 3 a few years ago on ‘Running the World’. But he’s having trouble getting the thread of the narrative together. That’s because, he says, he writes in swirls, and as he says this, he moves his hands through the air in swirling motions, a bit like the Karate Kid learning how to polish the bonnet of a car: wax on, wax off.

These swirls were the same shapes Sheila and I were making through the forest trails; the same shape our footfalls were leaving in the leafy, wet paths. Or maybe the swirls were just in my mind as I tried to remember the run even while running it, thinking about writing it down later. Like Lorimer, I’m interested in “how I can write running into being” and I want to “experiment with forms of writing about running”, not only because of the dissatisfaction with the forms of writing about running available, but also because there is something in the expressing of writing that adds to its value for me. (Perhaps this is something of a positive-multiplier-of-meaning-effect: that when put together, two things I find meaning from, running and writing, will increase the meaning of both. A strange, serendipitous benefit of combining forms.)

An hour and six miles in we were headed back, but somehow took a wrong turn over the Twin Falls bridge and climbed a steep set of stairs only to then take two more hills (inclines really—was I getting a bit more used to the ‘hill’?) which both turned out to be wrong turns. But then these wrong turns are part of the swirl of running off-road. The line is not so easy to grasp, nor is the meaning of the narrative, but then why should it be easy, always thought of in advance? Each foot fall is spontaneous on the trail, responding to the uneven world.

Then we were back at the Ecology Centre and the fire-fighters packing up their ropes and carabiners and then back past the photographers still trained on the still proud woodpecker, its head turning back and forth like a film star for its paparazzi on the forest red carpeted floor (it turns out to be a pileated woodpecker family). A quick stretch and a (vegan) home-baked cookie and a change of top and we were back in the car heading down the hill to the city.

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Forty-five days

The chickens are 20 to a crate, and the crates are moved in piles of 2 x 5 by a fast-moving forklift truck driver in dark blue overalls and a thick white mask over his mouth and nose. We’re in the (public) lane between the two buildings of the chicken packing factory at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. The building on the right as we look up the lane is the warehouse where stacks of crates, some 20 or 30 high, are kept in holding. On the left is the slaughterhouse.

warehouseThe forklift brings 40 or so crates from the towering columns to the open door of the warehouse, and from here he maintains a steady speed of loading the 2x5s onto the automated conveyor belt on the other side of the lane, into the open end of the slaughterhouse. The chickens are now minutes from death. They are 45 days old.

“Just babies,” said Mary-chris Staples, a maths teacher and organiser of the weekly vigils outside the slaughterhouse. She holds up two fingers to the birds in the crates as they are transported between the two buildings, a victory sign. “Bye babies,” she says as we take their pictures. The thought flashes through my mind that the ultimate sponsor of my trip, Winston Churchill (on this Churchill Fellowship), also used, became famous for, using this V-for-victory sign, long before victory was ever in sight.


A truck loaded with chickens will travel hours from the many broiler farms around Vancouver and beyond to this chicken processing plant. Earlier we watched one turn off Hastings into Frasier, but it looked empty. While we’re in the alley another, presumably full, pulls in, ready to unload. I’m with the 2×5 crates, the 200 chickens, that have just been loaded onto the heavy duty conveyor belt. Taking pictures. Mary-chris points past it.

chicken crate“In a minute that one will tip up 45 degrees and empty them all out into the processing line,” she explains. A moment later that’s what happens. The 200 birds are unceremoniously dumped out of the crate – and disappear from sight. The floor of the conveyor drops, the crate is rolled back and moved out of the way back to the open side of the space, so the forklift can come pick it up and return it to the warehouse, where it can either be repaired, or loaded back onto an empty truck and taken back to the broiler farms, for repacking. The other crates, still full of birds, move one space along in the line. The chickens I have been taking photos of, the ones I have been watching, slip slowly to the side, slip slowly away on the floating, buzzing machine.

Behind me the forklift driver quickly drives across the lane and loads up another 2×5 in the empty space. The next 200 chickens, to make sure the processing does not stop.

“Be careful,” says Mary-chris. “He won’t slow down for you.”

If this is the input line, round the corner, where a large refrigerated lorry container is fixed to he building, is the output. And the door adjacent to where we’re standing is in effect the garbage chute. The garage-style door is open and we watch as a huge container is loaded with animal slurry, chicken-flesh pink, pouring down funnels and pipes, some into the container, much of it simply onto the floor.

slurry guyWe take videos and photographs until the container is full, the waste products bound for dog food or some other product with standards lower than what is expected for human consumption, and the slaughterhouse worker shuts the roller door, Mary-chris still filming until its fully closed. I wonder why the forklift driver wears a mask but the slurry guy doesn’t. In the lane it smells but not as bad as I’d imagined.  The smell is not the worst thing. Even the confusion and fear in the eyes of the chickens is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the mechanisation. The numbers. It’s the first time I’ve seen it up close. I want to cry and I also don’t want to cry. I do not want to seem as if I’m shocked.


Earlier I’d joined Mary-chris on this regular Friday vigil at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive, where every week she and others from Liberation BC and the other animal rights groups in the city meet and bear witness so that others also might not forget what happens behind the walls of this nondescript building, hidden on the slope down to the traffic lights by 12 broad-leaved trees. A dozen placards are tied to lampposts and electricity boxes so the commuters on their way to work can see the messages: “Honk to stop the abuse”; a picture of a dog and a chicken with the now well-served slogan “Why love one and not the other?”.

Mary-chris stands with another placard around her neck, smiling and waving at the passing traffic. “It’s an invitation,” she explains. “If you don’t make eye contact with the drivers and passengers, they don’t really respond. But if you smile and wave, it’s an invitation. People can see you’re not here to shout at them. They can see that, ‘look, here’s a happy person doing something for the animals’ and that’s the invitation, to see what we’re saying. There’s a place for all types of activism.”


This one clearly works. While we’re talking Mary-chris keeps smiling and waving and she gets plenty of people smiling and waving back, and a regular orchestra of honking horns. She tells me about one young boy whose car had stopped at the lights, who read the placard and then whose eyes lifted to the building, and she could see something had happened in his mind.  “Even if it’s just one person…” she adds.

And then it’s my turn. “Can you hold this while I run to the washroom?” she asks, taking off her placard and handing it to me. Of course, I say. And then she runs up the street, leaving me standing on my own. I’m too self-conscious to wave. But I stand there and I face the traffic. No one honks. I’m not smiling, so no one smiles back. But then a bus driver, who pass by here every day, raises his hand to me, and I think, yes, okay.

When Mary-chris gets back she thanks me for doing my bit. It’s nearly 9am now, and Mary-chris is off to join the striking teachers on the picket line, defending Canada’s free education. She tells me that in fact as of today she’s officially retired. She wanted to retire early so she could spend more time on her animal rights work. We collect in the placards from along the street, and load them in the back of her car. The boot is covered with animal stickers, the back seat already down and the car half-full with other posters and the paraphernalia of an activist’s cause. Some of the pictures are of the abuse uncovered in the Mercy for Animals investigation last week at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales.

Before Mary-chris heads off to her picket line she gives me a hug and tells me that coming out here in the rain, all the way from the UK, has made her day, already an emotional one, even better. As she drives off I change into my running gear. Landed only last night, I don’t know my way around the public transport, so the best way, anyway, to discover a new place is always to run through it. I’ll leave here and do another 11 miles around the beautiful Stanley Park and English Bay.

As I leave I cross the alley again and look up. The forklift is still crossing back and forth, back and forth. The cages empty, full, full, then empty. This is what he will do all day. It is hard labour, and Mary-chris, as with Timothy Pachirat’s book Every 12 Seconds, about his year as a slaughterhouse worker, is at pains to point out, the activists’ vigils and protests are not aimed at the workers, but at the system.

As I’m watching two crows swoop down the lane and one dives and picks up a small morsel of escaped chicken flesh. The other crow bombs its back with its talons, hoping to make the first bird drop its prize. And rather than think how awful this is, I’m thinking why don’t people eat crow instead of chicken, or seagull, or eagle—the eagle I saw a few hours later surrounded by crows out at the very tip of Stanley Park. Why is it the chicken—the hundreds of millions of chickens—are the ones who only get to live to be 45 days old?

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