Rhonda-Marie Avery is an Ontario ultra runner with 8 per cent vision. In August 2014, she completed The Bruce Trail end to end in 20 days. She took on this 885 km challenge in support of Achilles Canada, a non-profit that provides free athletic training, support and a sense of community to more than 10,000 disabled athletes in 70 countries worldwide.
Rhonda-Marie’s name popped up on my newsfeed again after she completed a Tough Mudder. I’m so glad it did. I immediately sat down and watched 8% No Limit, the documentary about her Bruce adventure featured as a Get Out There Web Television Series and planned to interview her. Rhonda-Marie shared how she chooses her adventures, how she handles fear, and what she hopes her children will take away from her experiences. If you are thinking of taking on a goal that frightens you (the only kind that matters), you should adopt her motto and put your brave pants on. —Tracy
You have said, “I was not given this life to hide in it.” When did you have this realization?
I think perhaps the day I signed up for my first ultra marathon I knew, you don’t just show up to this sort of event (24 hrs in the forest) and say nothing. The idea that you could be in actual real danger weighs a bit on you. So you start telling people, “Please, I have 8% vision, I’ll have a guide runner on course with me the entire time, and if I fall, it’s not your fault”. In college, I’d sit at the front of each class and ask ten million questions. “What are you pointing at? Can you describe that picture? What colour is that? What do you mean by ‘red’?” In previous years I’d do anything I could to blend in, not be noticed, slip under the radar. Why would I tuck my white cane in my back pack at the mall/gym/playground? To make others more comfortable. Now I tuck it away only when I don’t need it, or when the metal gets so cold I can’t hold onto it. There are times I’ll go for a long lonely county road run alone and stop at the main crossing, pull my cane out, cross safely and then put it away again and continue running. How does this ‘revealing’ of my disability manifest in my life? It allows me a comfort zone. The funny part is, for the most part, that comfort zone makes others rather uncomfortable.
When did you start running? What drew you to it and how did it progress to ultra?
I started running the August before I started college for massage therapy. My three children were young and needed my attention a great deal. My studies, I knew needed a clear head. I connected with Achilles Canada and they took me out three times a week for 20 minutes of walk/run. I used to time my runs with the length of the washing machine cycle, or the dishwasher, any ‘allowable’ amount of time. My first race was a 4 kilometre leg of a relay. The idea that you could lose your mind completely and hit reset for a time was a wonderful new adventure. The progression to ultra became a natural flow. The first ultra I did was supposed to be my vacation. 24 hours of as much running as I wanted to do. I loved the idea of running at night in the forest. I see best in the dark. But when I got there, when my feet moved through the course, felt the pain, the fatigue, the want to keep going when everything in my ‘normal’ life screamed stop. That was when I knew…. ultra can take you anywhere, if you open your heart to it.
How do you choose your adventures? Or how do they choose you?
I beg people to suggest something that they assume I can’t do. At least that’s how it started. There are the adventures that keep me awake, the ones that crave me as much as I crave them. I follow able bodied examples. I want so badly to see other disabled athletes step up and try these quests, show the world we are part of it. Redefine the ideas we have about limitations. I choose the dreams that stay long after sleep leaves. The ones that need writing down, speaking out loud, pictures hung up. I long for the adventures that make no sense, because they don’t fit in any paradigm we accept. They don’t make sense to me either. It’s as though they just must be done.
Can you remember when you first decided to run the Bruce? Tell me about it. How long did it take the fear to set in?
I decided to run the Bruce Trail after seeing Cody Gillies finish picture at the southern cairn. He was sitting there, taking his socks off. Didn’t care that people were watching. That they expected some profound words of wisdom. He just wanted to take off his socks. And the entire ultra world exploded with hope and cheer. I remember thinking… Of course he finished. Look at him! Twenty nothing, strong, hero prototype. I thought, no one would expect a disabled finisher! I certainly didn’t. And then wham! Never, ever tempt karma with a dream you are unwilling to fight for. Fear? I think the moment people started to believe in me I was afraid. Not sure that ever goes away. Running 5 km is still very hard for me. However, I’d do it any day, or 50 km any day. You have to get comfortable with fear, it’s a noisy companion, but it keeps you moving.
Tell me about your relationship with fear today.
Fear. I wake up in the night with cold sweats the day before I have to grocery shop. That means I have to cross this road, and that road. Means I have to read labels, all squinty eyed and close up in front of people. Means I have to display weakness. Bolt out of bed. Weakness? I am 36 years into this life, I have known it only through my disability. I have accomplished several wonderful challenging things, and yet I STILL see disability as a weakness.
Fear is constant. What you manage to get done in-spite of it matters more. If your goals and dreams don’t scare you… they won’t challenge you. You need fear like you need hope. Difference creates space for change.
What’s the difference, to your mind, between being brave and being willing?
Being brave…. I like to say “put your brave pants on”. Bravery, acting in the face of fear. I do that every day. Walking to the post office, manoeuvring union station alone. Choosing my brand of ice cream. Finding the women’s washroom at the Walmart. Being willing? Every night I go to sleep and ask the universe to accept my life, for what it’s worth, as a vehicle for change, for awareness, for action. Again, you cannot preach about change if you are unwilling to change yourself. I’d like to run the Grand Canyon. Miss one step and end of story. Is that brave? Maybe. Willing? Maybe the willing part carries more of a message. My eulogy will likely read “Batgirl dies willingly having fed a mountain lions family on the Appalachian Trail” That’s way better that slumped over a desk wondering what if?
After so long on the Bruce, do you ever miss the trail?
Of course I miss my Bruce! I miss the way the trees jumped out in front of me, left their sappy sticky kisses on my sides. I miss the vultures that hover too close in a wait and see game I can’t win. I miss the way the orange mushrooms popped out at noon. I miss the way the single track carries you down to the creek crossing and washes away the landscape as you cross. I miss the way the underbrush swept past my shoes in a blur of dazed, exhausted confusion. I’ve been back. Run sections I crawled through. Danced under trees that called my name, that remember my breath. I’ve heard the echoes from deep in the crevices of a land before my time. The escarpment claimed me as part of its history. We miss each other daily. The Bruce was my sight into the soul of something tangled within.
Why did you say S.M.A.R.T goals are not smart?
SMART goals… My example of a smart goal is making a pot of coffee. It’s specific. It’s measurable. It’s attainable. It’s reasonable. It’s timely. I will brew a pot of coffee before I get my kids out the door to school tomorrow. SMART goals become habits. They become the things we stop thinking about. Like brushing our teeth. Don’t get me wrong, they are useful, they set the bar, help us make changes we need to fit healthy lifestyles into life.
But the big dream? The one that will change your life? That nags at the corners of who you want to be? If they are so scary that you feel sick thinking about them… you won’t likely reach for them. They need to be SO BIG that if one thing goes wrong, if one thing gets in the way, everything will fall apart. That way you are certain to let nothing stand in your way. If you want it badly enough, your purpose will move mountains. SMART goals just don’t get me there.
Why did you choose the Achilles Foundation?
Achilles taught me to run. They took disability out of the picture. It wasn’t a question could I run because I have 8% vision. It was okay, run one minute, walk the next. Learn, progress, adapt. Disability has this awkward place between accessibility and adaptability. Achilles worked with me and guide runners to make my goals reality. They’ve seen me through a lot… ultras and triathlons and more. I’d never heard of them before. I choose them because other disabled athletes need to know of them.
What have been the hardest lessons you’ve had to learn about fundraising for Achilles and now your own Foundation?
The hardest lesson… Awareness is my goal. That doesn’t always mean money. In fact, it hardly ever does. It means volunteers, guides, trainers, crew, transport, supplies, delegated organizers. Asking for money shuts some of that down. A coach may have no financial ability to help, but can give two hours a week to get a disabled athlete on the right training plan. A College student may have nothing to offer from their bank account but can offer to babysit so the disabled athlete can go for a run. An aunt or uncle contributes way more than they can imagine by sharing the stories. The work gets done when you love what you do. And I love what I do. I hope to always work to create this place where the ground is a bit more level, and acceptance is a bit more wide spread. That being said, the hardest part for me is always asking for money.
What’s your best fundraising tip?
Tell a story worth telling, leave out the ending so people will want to attach themselves to the finishing of it. Get them involved as much as you can. Keep their attention. Oh, and bribe them with cookies.
I loved reading about your experience at the Tough Mudder and I think you captured the character of obstacle races — the comradeship and strange glee. Are you doing it again or what is going to be your next adventure?
Obstacle racing is a huge bucket of fear for me. I loved it. And I hated it. Yes I would do it again. I have been asked to this year. I’m thinking perhaps of waiting until my kids are all old enough to do it with me. My next adventure, I’m running a through run on the Avon Trail in April (110 km) all in one go. There are FKT’s (fastest known times) online for our trails, men’s records, women’s records… oddly no disabled records. I’m attempting a 100 mile race early June as well. Mostly my focus is on building up the Envisions Foundation and co-directing a winter trail ultra next year. Ohhhhh….. and I’d really, really love to go to Barkley.
The training, the commitment…it all takes time. What do you want your children to know about why you do this?
Commitment matters. Chasing your dream matters. Deciding you’re going to give your word you will do something means sacrifice. So yes, I get up at 3:30am some days. Yes I am on the bike/yoga mat/pull up bar in between washing dishes and vacuuming. Yes when we go to the park I’m going to play hard too. My kids need to know the world doesn’t soften for you. You make your way because of consistent effort. They need to know that wonderful people come out and support. They need to know that supporting others is necessary and important. They need to know, they are worth a life changing goal. They need to know they must think beyond accepted norms and limits.
And they need to know I love them.
Can you finish this sentence for me? “One person can…”
One person can…
… change the colour of the walls they live in
… move mountains with a fondue fork
… sing a song the will stop the birds in flight
… dance to the rhythm no one else can hear
… piece together words in a karmic twist so sweet you will lull yourself away from fear
… stand up for anything, if only they believe
… make magic from a cup of tea
… stir the souls of nations if driven to add a little sugar
… redefine the possible
… find passion in every drop of sweat struggle creates