Monday, January 4, 2010

Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire

Where do I even start with this one? It’s been an incredible lead-up to my torch run, and now, in the blink of an eye, it’s all said and done. I’d hoped to create this blog in order for people I know to take part in the whole experience with me and share in my excitement and I’m hoping that’s what it has accomplished. I had also hoped to have people be able to watch me on CTV’s live torch camera while I ran, but apparently they cheaped out on their technology and couldn’t get it to work for most of Northern Ontario. I won’t even get started on that…so it’s back to the blog to finish things off.

So many things made this experience surreal and I don’t want to write a 5 page essay so I’ll try to keep it tight.

I’m not gonna lie to ya. Driving to Wawa wasn’t on my list of things to do for 2010. Unsure of whom I could convince to make the trip, I was really glad (and surprised) my buddy Jason and his girlfriend Stephanie decided they were in the mood for a road trip and were riding with us. Even more of a surprise was that my good friend Chris and his girlfriend Tracey, who both live in Toronto, were going to join us as well. I had only known that my mom and dad, and my girlfriend Jana would be my confirmed cheer squad in Wawa prior to finding out the convoy would be 8 of us. A lot to ask of everyone and I was pumped to learn that my friends wanted to join the trip. We geared up the truck, packed for a 6 to 8 hour drive, filled with toques, mitts, long johns and anything else we figured we’d need just in case since the weather network was calling for temperatures somewhere below minus 30 Celsius. A little anxious about driving Highway 17 West past the Soo for the first time, the drive was pretty awesome and not one I’d be wanting to do if the weather was shitty. Winding around Superior up and down the hills along the water was very picturesque with waves crashing into the rocky shoreline and along with the wintery mist, forming a frozen white crust over all of it. If not for wanting to just get to Wawa as soon as we could, and for fear of the icy winter driving that would have ensued, we surely would have stopped to watch the ominous frosty fog that seemed to be blowing in over the water towards us. I’ve seen much of Northern Ontario in my travels, but there were some spots along the way to Wawa that were out of a movie.

Our three truck convoy pulled into Wawa around suppertime, passed the giant goose and rolled into the Beaver Inn to take over the second floor of the hotel. The lady who managed the hotel was our first contact in Wawa and set the tone for everyone I got to meet from that town over the 2 days. She was very pleasant and excited for us to have come for the torch run and had already opened up our rooms and started the heater to get them nice and cozy for us. I figure the real reason she did this was to let the smell of 40 years of cigarette smoke from the now “non-smoking” rooms out so we wouldn’t notice as much, but aside from feeling like I smoked a pack of du Mauriers when I woke up the next morning, I had absolutely no complaints about our accommodations. After watching the Swiss upset Russia in OT, we made our way to the Embassy restaurant, which was suggested by the hotel manager. A typical Greek-owned local diner-style family restaurant, the owner, Tina came over and welcomed us with a thick Greek accent. When she learned of our reason for being in Wawa, her eyes lit up with excitement as she took great pride in the torch relay and Olympic Games due to her Greek descent. We got treated like gold, so we decided we had to promise a return for breakfast in the morning to Tina’s delight. We returned to the hotel so I could throw on some layers and go outside to see if I’d be warm enough in the morning with what I had brought. Bring on the cold!

5:30am came pretty quickly and I actually didn’t get that bad a sleep. A balmy -37, which became -44 degrees Celsius with the wind, (as I found out from my brother after getting home who had checked into it while we were in Wawa) greeted me in the morning, so in my fleece and long johns on top of fleece long johns, capped off by my paper-thin torch uniform and red mitts and Nikes double-knoted, I ran two buildings over to the Michipicoten Community Centre to register and get our marching orders and our torches, each one hand-assembled and signed by a Bombardier employee. I was to be third on the day to run, with a distance of exactly 400 metres – measured out by my dad’s odometer the night before on route to the restaurant. A straight-away, followed by a bit of an incline left turn, and finished off with another straight run to the finish. A good stretch if I had to choose one to run.

With six torchbearers in Wawa, Jamie from Winnipeg would have her torch lit first at the Community Centre and pass it on to Jerry, also from Winnipeg. I was on the torchbearer bus for the two first passes so I didn’t get to see those, but they dropped me at my checkpoint just minutes before Jerry ran towards me, so we didn’t have to wait outside too long and freeze. As Jerry from Winnipeg approached, a member of the relay organizing team, who I shall refer to as Torch Nazi, brought me to the middle of the road to get ready to get lit. Torch up high in the air and within a second a burst of flame and I’m ready to rock! While I tried to stall and get a pic taken with my mom who was at the beginning of my run adamant that I wouldn’t be without someone familiar when my torch was lit, the Torch Nazi did her best to get in the way and not let the photo happen and push me to start jogging, after telling me not to start moving yet so the live webcam truck could get a bit ahead – which was obviously useless. Bitch. I guess the other media on it used the vehicle as well. So off I went. My mom jumped back into her truck after a few expletives I’m sure and navigated around the torch route to be at the end before I got there, with Jana, bundled up like an Eskimo with a big fur hood, and Steph who held an awesome sign that Jana and my mom had made to cheer me on, and Chris and Tracey. Jay somehow made himself out to look like official media – complete with his own white uniform – and was able to jog just a couple feet away from me the whole 400 metres with his mom’s videocamera in hand capturing the whole thing as it unfolded start to fiish. He actually started at the Community Centre, filmed the first 2 torch passes and ran up to my checkpoint to film my entire run. All in -44! I don’t think Jay’s run a kilometer since varsity basketball practices at Cambrian! Awesome!!
And then there’s my dad.

After himming and hawing for the past few weeks over where he should be while I ran...

"Maybe at the beginning so I can see your torch get lit,
but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a good shot,
so maybe I’ll wait at the end and take pictures of you
as you come towards us. Or maybe I’ll go part of the way down
and try to run to the end and take pictures of you or should I…"

-he did one better. Draped in a Canada flag and a huge smile, my dad ran right beside me, next to Jay and his video camera, stride for stride, beginning to end while providing a running commentary, talking to my brother on the phone, and making conversation with the torch relay team who run beside you to make sure you don’t drop the thing. I didn’t really notice the relay team joggers the whole way. I also didn’t notice the ridiculously cold weather for the most part. I had my dad letting me know that he was warming up, so I must be starting to warm up too. It was pretty cool I must say.

I jogged at a pretty good pace and once I got moving, there was no way I could change the pace since my legs just wanted to keep the blood flow and stay warm. I didn’t get a chance to even think about tripping or slipping – or highstepping the last 20m for that matter – since it flew by so quickly. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t drop the torch or let it get too close to my toque since that thing burned like crazy! I also tried to acknowledge the people who came out to watch roadside and wave and cheer. I really had a great time with every step. Around the bend and onto the home stretch and there were my mom and Jana and Steph and Chris and Tracey, all freezing and cheering as I came to the end of my run. It was exhilarating. I ran up to Sam from the Soo to light his torch and begin his run, and that was that.
Back onto the torchbearer bus to see the last couple of torchbearers, the last of which being World War II local Wawa veteran Jack Myers. Jack was selected by the people of Wawa to be their representative torchbearer as a local hero war veteran. As I sat on the bus with Jack and we talked about how we all got there, he told us how he fought in the 2nd World War as a member of the Tank Regiment (5th I believe, in the B and C Battalion if my recent memory and war lingo serves me correctly). I mentioned to Jack that my grandfather had also been part of the Tank Regiment and when I said the name Stan McColeman, his eyes lit up and he immediately told me that they had served together in the same battalion and even had a camp near eachother. This totally blew me away, as my grandfather passed away before I was born so being brought together with an absolute stranger in a town I’d never been to who knew my grandfather really hit home and I went numb. It just added to the whole personalized enjoyment of the entire experience and really brought luck and fate back to the forefront of it all.
The people of Wawa really got behind the torch coming to town and lined the streets and waved from their living room windows especially in the residential area passed the local school on the way back to the Community Centre. When we got back, I wanted some pics outside of the Community Centre with my friends and family and then Chris made mention that a lady wanted a shot with the torch…and the line-up began. I was the only torchbearer still outside, so 20 or so pictures with families and Wawa residents later I finally had to ask people to go inside since I was freezing, and that there were 5 more torchbearers inside as well.
We stuck around for a few pics, snuck out of the craziness that remained and made our way back to the Embassy for breakfast as promised for a picture with Tina and the torch, then off to the giant Goose in the blustering wind for a few last tourist shots with the torch before packing up at the Beaver Inn and hitting the road to wrap up an incredible journey.

It finished off not upon my return home last night, but today as I got to show my brother the torch and suited up for one last time (I hope) in my torchbearer gear to get one last picture with Neil and the torch, just before we opened it up to check out the guts and for Neil to quickly determine that he could fuse the line back together, throw in a kerosene canister and get that baby burning again if we ever wanted to have the world’s coolest barbeque lighter. Ya never know. In the end, even though the torch burned bright for every step I had with it, it sure as hell didn’t keep me warm as I joked months ago to the Globe and Mail. What kept me aglow was the support and best wishes from everyone who shared their excitement for me coming from people I know across the entire country from coast to coast and beyond. Thanks once again to all of you and please know that you’ve made this experience an absolutely amazing and memorable one. Now make sure to follow the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games and cheer on our athletes and our nation!

Go Canada!


  1. Going to Wawa for this Torch Run was an amazing and unforgetable experience. As always, you did us PROUD Joey. Yes, the -47 was a bit much, but the great people of Wawa were so welcoming and warm, you put the cold factor aside. Don't forget to document all the great stories you've taken from this ordeal.

    You ran that torch with pride and I'm sure your feet didn't hit the road -- I'm sure you were floating! Thank you for including us in this memory.


  2. Great job Constable.
    I am so very proud of you. Wish we could have been there with you. Can't wait to hear more of your journey. I'm sure Canada will finish first now that you've carried the torch.


  3. Great stuff, Joe. A terrific picture you've painted from beginning to end. And bookending it with your description of Superior and then the chance encounter with a buddy of your grandfather's from the war.

    Superb. Congratulations.