Spencer Lee is running.
The Eagle Ridge Hospital nurse is running when I talk to him, when I take his photo, when I head back home and now, as I type these words, Spencer Lee is running.
His goal, excluding brief stops for food and drink, is to run for 24 straight hours on the track at Heritage Woods Secondary. He’s running to raise money for the Eagle Ridge Hospital Foundation and he’s running because this is what he does, but at 5:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, Lee is standing still.
A portable gazebo is slumped near the track, its dome is low and its legs are folded like an exhausted spider. Next to it, Lee has that stance familiar to novice campers who spread out their Canadian Tire tent and wonder where the missing pieces might be.
Lee got six hours of sleep last night.
Is that enough? I ask.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” he says with a short, pleasant laugh.
Fellow runner Ramona Toth helps with the tent. The legs straighten but don’t click. The gazebo goes straight up and then plunges like Bitcoin stock.
Toth and Lee started running together just before the pandemic started. She might run alongside Lee later today, she says, despite her feeling for running tracks. That feeling could safely be described as loathing.
“I don’t like the track at all,” Toth says. And then, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, she adds: “Like zero, for any purpose whatsoever.”
“None of my friends like track,” Lee notes.
Running in forests and up mountain trails stimulates your brain along with your body, Toth explains. The track offers you nothing.
Toth has been running since a friend persuaded her.
“No thanks, I don’t run,” she remembers saying. “And then I start to run. And I haven’t stopped.”
The experience prompted her to create a Facebook group specifically for running mothers.
“We kicked ass,” she reminisces.
The group, now known as RunHikeBikeTriCities, has expanded to include more than 1,000 runners, hikers, cyclists and triathletes. But the guiding notion of the group is still intact.
“Everybody’s a runner. . . . You get out of your bed, you go run, you’re a runner,” she says. “You don’t have to be fast like he is,” she adds, gesturing to Lee. “I’m a mom of three, I run a business, I work crazy hours . . . I still run.”
As Toth grapples with the gazebo, Lee walks to his car in the parking lot above the track for snacks and energy drinks. This walk is more or less his warm-up.
“We don’t stretch,” he explains. “We just go.”
His plan this summer was to head to Manning Park in early August for the Fat Dog 120 – an endurance quest traversing three provincial parks and gaining more than eight kilometres worth of elevation.
When the event was cancelled, Lee looked for an alternative.
“I might as well do something, something insane,” he remembers deciding.
If Lee is nervous about the 24-hour task before him he’s done an admirable job of hiding it. It’s when the conversation shifts to nursing that he uses the word “hard.” It’s a fulfilling career, he notes, but tough.
“Always on your feet. Eight-hour, 16-hour shifts,” he says. “We’re always short. Every day.”
He heads down the stairs to the track around the time Sterling Arndt arrives.
A mechanic by trade, Arndt walks to the track with his hat on backwards and a cup of coffee in hand.
“My legs are destroyed from yesterday. It was Unnecessary,” he adds, referring to Unnecessary Mountain.
He puts down his coffee cup and, 30 seconds and four clicks later, the gazebo is standing straight
“My job’s done,” Arndt announces before turning to Lee. “Do you have anyone to run with you tonight yet?”
“No,” Lee says.
“People have jobs, you know.”
Through a clearing to the south we can see the moon clinging to the bottom of the horizon. The sky is the colour of a blushing Smurf.
It’s 6:03 a.m., Lee announces.
He gives a last look at the day’s supplies: pretzels, cherries, strawberries, sushi, Heal, and a few scones from Cob’s. He’s got water, Vitamin Water, Gatorade and small cans of beet extract labelled Beet It.
“Off you go now,” Toth says. “Start running.”
As they run side by side, Lee and Arndt trade running stories. There was that runner who mistook yellow flowers for yellow trail markers and ran off the course. There was the time toilet paper became a rare, precious commodity. There are stories of runners taking bad falls and breaking bones and suffering acute illness. They all seem have the same ending: the runner crosses the finish line.
“A lot of ultra-running has to do with the mental aspect,” Lee says. “Something will go wrong at some point.”
It’s up to the runner to discern between pain and injury, he explains. And then it’s up to the runner to heal thyself with bandages, energy drinks, salt tablets and food.
Arndt got into running after: “blowing up everything I had in my legs from playing soccer,” he notes. For him, the three-quarters speed rhythm he’s running at now is almost a comfort after the stop-start action of soccer.
“You get cramps and things start to hurt,” he says. “But you’re not really hurt.”
By 6:45 a.m. the sun is over a copse of pine trees to the north, casting narrow ribbons of warmth over the track. At its hottest, the temperature will reach 29 C today.
“It’ll hurt,” Lee says of the sun. He smiles. “As a nurse I know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke.”
“Are you able to diagnose yourself?” Arndt asks.
“I don’t think so,” Lee says. “If I get admitted, it’s on my colleagues.”
After a few laps they’re not just running side by side, they’re running in-step, Arndt’s Nikes and Lee’s Altras hitting the track in rhythm.
“It’s like a metronome to keep going,” Lee says.
“After two, three hours in, time just kind of evaporates,” he says. Then, with sharp comic timing, he adds: “The last couple hours, not so much.”
As they run they chat about different trails, calculating the distance in Grouse Grinds. They talk about running the track last year and the moment the sky opened up and dumped rain on them for three hours.
“We just laughed the whole time,” Arndt recalls. “How stupid are we?”
They’re both smiling now.
“This is the view for 24 hours,” Lee says.
“I’m not staying that long today, Spenny,” Arndt announces.
It seems like Arndt’s been leaving since he got there but he stays and they do another lap together. Lee takes the outside lane.
There are about 23 hours left in Lee’s run.
“You can run like this all day,” Arndt says.