When it rains, runners sometimes like to joke that their run turned into a swim. But for Toronto’s Robert Campbell, this almost happened for real during Monday night’s record-breaking storm that saw 126mm of rain flood the city in a single day.
In the late afternoon on Monday, Campbell leaves his home in downtown Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood for his regular 15K run along the Don River trail system, a paved multiuse path that snakes through the Don Valley in the city’s east end. Before leaving the house, he had called his wife, Anne Byrne, for a quick weather consultation.
“I don’t think it will rain,” she told him.
Campbell, founder of the competitive running club Black Lungs Toronto, wasn’t concerned about being rained on during his run, but had been doing some home maintenance work outside during the day and was wondering whether or not he should put away his tools and materials before he left. (Despite his wife’s assessment, Campbell did put away all of the gear.)
As he’s doing some warmup lunges, Campbell notices a big, black sky rolling in.
“Normally the high pressure of the city will push the stormy stuff up north into the 905 [Toronto’s suburban areas],” Campbell says. “Not today. I head out. Quickly. Five minutes in, the rain hits. Hard.”
Descending into the Don Valley bike path via a pedestrian footbridge, 2K into the run, Campbell is soaked. Cyclists are taking cover under bridges as he splashes through large puddles.
About 5K in, water begins to bubble up through the cracks in the paved path, caused by hydrostatic pressure from the rainfall. “Cool,” Campbell thinks.
A bit later, he runs past a geyser of water spewing 15 or 20 feet high from a runoff culvert with a heavy steel cover. “Very cool!”
Near the halfway point, Campbell runs past the newly constructed GO train bridge. “Everything seems normal,” he says. “Except for the rain. It keeps hitting hard and heavy.” He heads south to retrace his steps.
“The Don [River] is getting high, very high,” Campbell says. “But I have time, I think. I’m 10 or 12K into the run. Pass over Pottery Road and south up and over the only hill heading back to the pedestrian bridge. Things are now very different from when I passed 45 minutes earlier.”
He keeps thinking the land will rise up out of the water, but it doesn’t.
“I’m up to my shorts now and it’s getting deeper,” Campbell says. “I’m still holding out for the possibility of shallower wading, when I see a runner coming toward me. He had just come around the corner that I was aiming for. Holding his cellphone over his head, he’s yelling, ‘Turn back!’”
The man tells Campbell that the water is over six feet deep and if he goes any further, he’ll be swimming. Plus, the other runner adds, he’ll be confronted by a couple of rats.
So Campbell follows the other runner – who’s busy cursing as he tries to keep his cellphone dry – back through waist- and chest-high water to the Pottery Road hill.
“I climb that damn hill and the weather gets crazy-bad at the top,” Campbell says. “I imagine what would have happened had I stayed down in the valley. Some car drivers and GO Transit riders found out.” This is the exact area where a GO train carrying 1,400 passengers would get stuck in the water and result in a seven-hour evacuation process that required a marine unit and lifeboats.
Across the Bloor Street Viaduct bridge, the rain hits Campbell like hailstones. Oddly enough, he gets into a footrace with a guy wearing Vibram FiveFingers toe shoes. “I don’t lose to guys wearing FiveFingers,” says Campbell.
He walks in the door of his home drenched and beaten after 18K. Campbell’s wife has just gotten off the phone with her boss, who said, “So, how’s that chance of showers working out for ya?”