Retracing steps, remembering what’s possible

I ran 4.4 km at midday yesterday, an unremarkable run except for the heat. Slow, measured, lots of pauses for water.

But in that 4.4 km, I was retracing the steps of a route I ran once a year for a decade: one loop of the three-loop run in the annual Triadventure fundraiser for Nikibasika, the project I’m a (volunteer) Director of, supporting youth leadership in Uganda.

The project in a nutshell: a small group of Canadians met a group of 52 children and youth with no family support in 2006; with two partners in Uganda, we have created a community of connection, leadership development and education that has led to amazing young adults. Nikibasika means “it is possible” in the local language. We always committed to supporting only this group, until they were all done post-secondary education and launched. There are 15 of the original 52 left.

Some of the remaining 15 Niki kids

I’ve written about this event and project many times, and so have Susan and Sam. It’s been the most life-changing experience I could ever have. Simply put, I am me because of this project.

This year, the pandemic didn’t force us to cancel the Triadventure — because, brilliantly, we did a huge splash last year and raised almost $200,000, enough to see us through until the youngest kid graduates. So this run yesterday was… a reflection, really. I wanted to see what I would discover, running those same steps without the energetic anxiety and joy of being with the people I love the most, a group of people I need to inspire, a large group of athletes who need to be taken care of, the pressure and worry about raising enough money. Without the inexpressible pingponging of emotions — fretting about my own physical capability to do, over three days, a 14 km run, an 11km paddle and 140 km of riding; feeling so flooded with love for what people are capable of, the awe at this astonishing, unlikely thing of bringing a community of about 50 Canadians — and all their contacts — together with this group of youth on the other side of the world; the anxiety of dealing with a lot of people having their own extraordinary experiences, both joyful and anxious and petty.

Triadventure crew and athletes around 2014

A decade of an event like this is a decade fully lived. My business partner started this event, at his family’s summer camp, doing this together, we forged our powerful trust and connection, hatched out so many new ideas paddling a canoe together. Other relationships bloomed unexpectedly, some waxed and waned. Learning to lead through this project forced me, over and over, into a place where I continually had to do things that I fumbled my way through, finding a thread of inspiration to connect people in Canada to real lives that meant they stayed committed to these kids, raised an impossible amount of money, for such a long time. Two of my sisters and their families have crewed this event, and I am surrounded by my chosen family . I rode my first 100 km on this ride, then my first 130km, trusted my aging body in completely new ways. Learned to deal with the dramatic moments of decision-making — do we pull people off the water in a thunderstorm? how and when?, jerry-rig safe responses, wrap chattering, blue-lipped people in towels. Learned to deal, (sometimes with grace), with the pettinesses of taking care of people in groups, like complaints that a gift of pizza wasn’t gluten free. Learned to recognize my own irritability at endless logistics, at other people’s angst, as anxiety.

And last year — the most amazing moment — we had one of the Niki “kids” — the remarkable Siima Smith — with us. Brought together this story we have been writing in Uganda with the community that did so much on pure trust that goodness, that hope, can be created out of small acts of care.

Smith finishing the paddle with Mitch

Yesterday, as I ran through the woods at the start of the run, I played the same song I’ve started every significant run with for years now. I felt that moment of elation stepping over the broken rock of the Canadian Shield for that first slow kilometre in the shaded, winding forest. I paused at the first big turn, realizing it was the first time I’d rounded that corner without someone — usually a someone wearing a delightful costume — handing me water. At the second empty water station, I felt that same pang. I’m running a trail where I’ve always been supported — by fellow runners, a devoted crew shoving water in my face, a broad community of donors. But now I’m running it, alone.

It was a little lonely, running alone, with the ghosts of tall, fast, loving Rob streaking ahead of me, the earnest conversation I had with Francois, Aine in the cocktail dress she agreed to run in to her donors, with no one from crew making sure I wasn’t melting. But I was thinking about the power of the history of support, of creating community, of Doing Good Work together. Right now in history is a weird and isolating time. But I’ve run so many steps with and for other people — I haven’t lost them.

The third kilometre of this loop is always unpleasant, a bakingly hot stretch along the road. I chose to run it yesterday, instead of turning around and running back on the more shady route, because I wanted to relive the strength it forces me to reach deep to find. It’s just a flat, hot, short stretch, but it has that feel of Dread for me. I barged right at it, finding a slow but steady, persistent pace. Nevertheless, she persisted. This could be the title of my autobiography, is certainly the story of this project. An impossible project, ridiculous to envision or predict, and yet, here we are.

And where are we? During the time of Covid, Uganda has been locked down. The newly launched Niki youth have all been laid off, had to find ways to survive in this first flush of adult self-reliance. The younger kids had to leave school and go back to the project house where — in early April — the town was hit by a massive flood, which left 1000s of people living in refugee camps.

Moses feeding some of the kids in the community

The Niki kids’ response? To ask if there was a way for us to help them help the community. We did a bit of fundraising — our amazing community, here, again — and the high school kids have been cooking and bringing food to the kids of the town twice a day for 6 weeks. They have helped disabled kids get clothes, mattresses and bedding, and located a baby that needed surgery.

Smith with David and Emmanuelle

And the amazing Smith, who runs a medical clinic? He noticed two little kids on the street two days in a row, discovered their father had died, and their sick mother had disappeared. He brought them home and — well, this is how it works — they’re his kids now. Our kids.

It’s good work. And that work is in those hot steps, the familiar trail, the connections built over time.

There have been moments since March where I’ve lost track of my grounding. But running yesterday? I was reminded. I’ve run a lot of steps in my life, by myself and with others. They’ve prepared me for strength, endurance, resilience, a sense of humour, trust in the world. It was good to be reminded.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who needed that day off yesterday.

Our small but mighty team in Triadventure 2019

3 thoughts on “Retracing steps, remembering what’s possible

  1. Love this post and love your writing about triadventure etc. I do hope you’re writing a book about Nikibasika. I think Greystone would love it. Fits their profile. They’re based in Vancouver. Anyway, you should write it. I’d love to read it. Thks for sharing it here.

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