Cody Gillies: End-to-end
June 19, 2012
Cody Gillies aims to run the Bruce Trail in record time – and raise money for sick kids at Headwaters Health Care Centre!
I trip on a root and tumble hard, grunting awkwardly as my ribs hit the dirt. Gliding ahead of me, Cody Gillies hears the thud and turns to ask if I’m okay. We’re an hour or so into our 17-kilometre run together at Mono Cliffs Provincial Park, and I’m beginning to unravel, but I notice Cody still looks fresh. As I get up and we continue, he’s on cruise control, his compact 160-pound frame flowing downhill smoothly, as if he’s on wheels.
Donate online to support Headwaters Health Care and Cody’s Run at CanadaHelps.org.
Cody is only 22. He has very little in the way of an ultra-distance-running resumé (“ultra” refers to any distance longer than a marathon). It’s a sport that’s more about endurance, experience and mental toughness than speed or power, where the best competitors tend to be in their thirties. So far he’s been reaching out for advice from the ultra-running community and has found people are unfailingly helpful, but he also detects an air of skepticism, of “who is this guy?”
That’s pretty much what I was wondering too when I asked Cody if I could join him for a training run. I wanted to interview him, but also to see how he measured up to the yardstick of my own ability.
I’m no ultra-runner, but I know what it’s like to run the Bruce Trail. A few years ago I set out to jog the whole thing, not all at once but in modest sections, and I’ve finished all but about a hundred kilometres. On pavement, I can run a marathon in under three hours – a respectable time – but to cover the same distance on the Bruce would take me most of a day.
The Bruce Trail is known for its scenic beauty, but as a way to get from A to B, it’s excruciating. As the trail does its best to hug the scenic crest of the Niagara Escarpment, the imperfect realities of terrain, geology and property rights make it a tortuous line that traverses some 885 kilometres between Tobermory and the Niagara River – two and a half times farther than the same journey by road.
And curiously, the trail keeps getting longer. With land acquisitions and trail reroutes adding nearly a hundred kilometres in recent years, I joke that it’s growing faster than I’m running it. The footpath meanders up and down the Escarpment’s precipitous folds so many times per kilometre that the cumulative vertical rise and fall would rival that of the Annapurna Circuit.
For all these reasons it’s a rare soul indeed who chooses to run – run – the entire Bruce Trail in one sustained push. I once ran 62.5 kilometres from Hockley Valley to Honeywood. It took me 10 hours – barely faster than a walking pace – and then I went home and slept for 11, and took a few days off to rest. To meet his goal, Cody has to run 80 kilometres, 11 days in a row.
The real trick is to maintain this pace and not get injured.
In September 1995, a 35-year-old, top Ontario ultra-distance runner named Scott Turner set out to run the trail. “I tore a muscle in my right quad on day five,” he says. “I could not run and hobbled/hiked 10 hours a day for the remainder.” But he finished and claimed the first Bruce Trail running record of 14 days, 5 hours and 58 minutes.
A hardy few have tackled Turner’s record, but most dropped out with similar injuries, the inevitable penalty of trying to sustain a road-running pace for days on end over such ankle-twisting terrain.
In 2005, Clayton Smith, a 38-year-old financial executive and father of four, came close to Turner’s mark, finishing just shy of 15 days. Smith’s training partner Marc Hamel joined him at the start, but had to drop out with a calf and hip injury after three days. Also that year, 61-year-old Bryan Mason completed 240 kilometres in five days, but was stopped by a foot and leg infection.
A breakthrough finally appeared likely the following summer when Ryne Melcher set out from Tobermory. Melcher, then 27, was arguably Canada’s top ultra-distance runner. A member of Canada’s national 100-kilometre running team, he’d been the youngest person ever to finish 100 and 150 ultra-distance races, and had taken bronze at the USA 50 Mile National Championship. Melcher linked together a series of 80-kilometre days on the trail’s hard northern section and was well on his way to obliterating Turner’s record – until he too was forced by nagging injury to drop out.
So Turner’s time stood for 15 years, until July 2010. Charlotte Vasarhelyi, a member of Canada’s national 24-hour ultra-distance running team, who had once run 193 kilometres in one day, prepared for the Bruce Trail by running up to 240 kilometres a week. After a gruelling siege of blistered feet and 16-hour days, driving for hours to sleep at various friends’ houses near the trail, and sleeping barely three hours a night, she reached the stone cairn at Queenston Heights to set the standing record of 13 days, 10 hours and 51 minutes.
Among such distinguished company, Cody enters the game with the advantages of his relative youth, a dependable crew (his brother Kyle and good friend Danny Heenan), and a familiar bed in his trusty 1972 VW Westfalia awaiting him at the end of each day’s run.
Cody is also a born and bred runner, thanks to his active mom, Karen Gillies. She is an avid mountain biker and runner who just sold her long-time store, Creek Side Clothing Co. , in favour of outdoor landscape work. Karen started early with her sons to live up to the motto “The family that plays together stays together.”
From the time Cody was eight years old, Karen would take him and Kyle for five-kilometre training runs. She also brought them along to race in The 5 Peaks Trail Running Series. Karen would usually finish on the podium, and the two boys would almost always place, beating older kids in the under-20 group.
“For me, having boys and not girls, it was sort of like ‘thank goodness I enjoy some of the things that boys will enjoy doing with their mom,’” says Karen. For years she and Cody’s aunt, Kim Gillies, organized a family-friendly Summer Solstice Trail Run at Mono Cliffs, aimed at promoting trail and running awareness in the community.
The family running bond stayed strong enough to become the inspiration for Cody’s Bruce Trail dream. Last October, Cody joined his mom in her goal of running 50 kilometres to celebrate her 50th birthday at a trail race called The StumpJump 50 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It was the state championships and a mountain run with an elevation gain of 5,000 feet. Cody’s preparation consisted of a sole 42-kilometre run, but he cruised into 19th place with a time of 5 hours, 8 minutes. Karen came in a couple of hours later, placing sixth in her age group.
For Cody, feeling so good after so little training prompted the realization “maybe I can do this.” He had recently read an article about Charlotte Vasarhelyi’s run on the Bruce, and these events – plus a birthday theme – coalesced into a plan. Cody’s birthday was the same month, on October 9, and the family recounted how he was born six weeks premature and had to be sent to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto because they didn’t have the equipment to care for him in Orangeville – equipment the hospital now has thanks to other fundraising efforts.
The notion of running the Bruce Trail as a hospital fundraiser with a personal connection “came together then and there,” Cody recalls. “I opened my big mouth and next thing I knew a friend had put up a website, it was on Facebook, I got my first few donations and it was like, ‘Holy cow! I guess I have to do this now.’”
Slapdash as that sounds, Cody takes goal setting very seriously. Prior to this, he was captivated by mountain biking. Two years ago he entered an eight-hour solo mountain bike race and found the format of repetitive 10-kilometre laps to be so brutal – “It absolutely destroyed me. It felt like I was hallucinating” – that he was determined to try it again, with better preparation. So last year he entered three races, finishing all three in the top 10.
This season, the two generations of Gillies are back on the trails together, but Karen is riding her mountain bike and Cody joins her long weekend rides on foot to break up the monotony of his solo training schedule. “In some cases he’s ahead of us,” she says. “What he calls his ‘Bruce Trail pace,’ he’ll be dialling it back a little so he can stay with us. He carries on a conversation and just runs with us.”
It was this very Bruce Trail pace that was starting to weigh on me during our run in Mono Cliffs.
“So how is this pace for you anyway?” I ask casually after cruising along for an hour or so begins to feel, to me, somewhat painful. “Fast? Slow?”
“It’s just comfortable,” he replies, about what he’d do for a multi-hour run. I gather that he could go on like this all day.
Cody coasts along at this speed for about 160 kilometres a week, most of it alone, enjoying the views, never going too hard, wisely conserving enough energy to keep coming back for more the next day. All the while juggling three jobs and practising the fine art of “learning how to turn people upside down and shake their pockets out,” which he says is as important as the run itself.
Besides having its own rewards, fundraising motivates the running motivation. Cody thinks he’ll be letting down donors if he fails to break the record. And it also serves as a kind of insurance against futility. The glory of being the Bruce Trail record holder is obscure at best, and may be even tougher than he’d planned. This month, Charlotte Vasarhelyi made an attempt to break her own 13-day record, but was obliged to pull out after three days with a hamstring injury. Still, Cody has heard rumours that another local runner is planning a shot. Even Scott Turners says he may try again in 2013.
Donate online to support Headwaters Health Care and Cody’s Run at CanadaHelps.org.
Cody is a rod worker, which means placing rebar on construction projects across southern Ontario. On a workday he single-handedly places a ton of steel, sometimes two, and only takes a 15-minute break. It’s a young man’s trade with more than its share of misfits who tease him about his blonde-haired, blue-eyed looks, and the healthy green vegetable shakes he packs in his lunch.
In Cody’s mind, the long hours and heavy lifting amount to more training – strengthening his joints, teaching his body to be on its feet all day. The week we meet he’s been working in Brantford, commuting two and a half hours each way to work an eight-hour shift, eating on the road and squeezing in a 25-kilometre training run and chiropractic treatments after work. He’s also just been hired on at the volunteer fire department in Rosemont, part of his plan to become a full-time firefighter.
He does a long run of 60 kilometres or more on weekends, and until very recently headed to a Saturday night job working until 3 a.m. as a floor manager at an event centre. He’s just left that job to be available for fire calls. Staying up all night after running all day, he says, like the rigours of his trade, was also “good training because it kept me on my feet for long periods,” even if it was in dress shoes.
Everything has a place and a purpose in Cody’s tightly packed life. In the summer his construction job shifts to ten-hour days, six days a week, but Cody hopes to get the weekends off so he can do two long runs. If he has to work, he plans to donate the overtime pay to his hospital fund. He figures if he has to miss out on training, at least he can make progress towards his other goal. He plans to build up to a three-day trial run from Tobermory to Owen Sound in early summer – two 80-kilometre days followed by 50. Then he’ll taper down his training to rest before his September 25 start, the date that will put him in Niagara Falls the first weekend of October to celebrate his birthday with friends and family.
“If I’m a bit early, that will be Thursday night. If I’m a bit late, that will be Saturday. And then if I’m competing for Charlotte’s current record I’ll finish on Sunday,” he explains.
After an afternoon with Cody, I decide that anyone who would write off his running ambitions because of his youth or inexperience has underestimated him. I’m convinced he can do anything he sets his mind to. Headwaters Health Care Centre probably saw the same thing when they endorsed his fundraising. Likewise the Rosemont fire department when they took him on as a volunteer: a strong young man with a good head on his shoulders.
After the run, we stop at Mono Cliffs Inn for a pint of draft – what the more laid-back side of Cody calls “the best recovery drink.” Up to this point in his life, he says, he’s never taken sport too seriously. It was always just for fun. But this is different.
He even tells me if he broke his leg on the second-last day of the run, he thinks he would have the drive to “fight it out with crutches.”
“When it comes down to achieving a goal, I don’t like to fail,” he says. And I believe him.
Cody’s run by the numbers
Distance of Bruce Trail 885 kilometres
Current running record 13 days, 1o hours, 51 minutes
Cody’s planned start date September 25
Number of kilometres Cody plans to run per day 80
Projected finish date October 5
Fundraising goal for Headwaters Health Care Centre’s Pediatric Unit $25,000
Typical training week 160 kilometres
Typical weekday training run 25 kilometres
Typical weekend training run 60 kilometres
Follow Cody’s run at inthehills.ca
Beginning September 25, Cody will post a daily blog about his End-to-End Challenge run to beat the Bruce Trail record. You can send him encouragement by posting comments.
To support Cody’s goal of raising $25,ooo for the pediatrics unit of Headwaters Health Care Centre, visit his website, www.endtoendchallenge.com, and click “Sponsor Cody Now” at the top of the page, or send a cheque payable to the Headwaters Health Care Foundation, marked End-to-End Challenge, 1oo Rolling Hills Dr, Orangeville l9w 4x9 (519-941-2702).