Perhaps I should title this post “Blog for an Average Ultra Runner”. I was, after all, right in the middle of the pack as well as in the middle of the women and the middle of my age group. I have that average thing covered. But is there such a thing as an average ultra runner? I don’t think so! Anyone who chooses to train for and run an ultra distance can’t be average – crazy maybe, but not average.
It was kind of an interesting chain of events that led to me signing up for the Niagara Ultra. I had made the decision during the winter that I wanted to try an ultra distance and had decided to do a very popular race called Run for the Toad which this year will be taking place on October 1st. I hesitated for a while about officially registering. It was one thing to decide in my head to do it, another entirely to actually sign up. The final push came when I became a SWEET ambassador for Bushtukah, becoming part of a group of women inspiring and empowering others through sport and fitness. One of the requirements to be part of this group was to be willing to try something new. Trying an ultra distance for the first time seemed to be perfect and I took the leap and registered.
In the meantime, another new opportunity had come up. The lead pace bunny for Ottawa Race Weekend had put the word out that they were short a pacer for the 5:30 marathon group. Suddenly I found myself signing up for yet another new experience, one I had really never even thought of doing.
Training for my job as a pace bunny meant as soon as I finished Around the Bay I needed to start practicing my pace and using 10 and ones rather than running continuously. It took some practice but suddenly I found myself loving my long runs. Spring was here, it felt amazing to be outside for hours at a time and I found myself smiling on all my runs. One day I headed downtown and had a thoroughly enjoyable 32 km run. Suddenly I wanted to do more. We all know what happens to a runner after a fantastic run – you hit Google before hitting the shower to find out what race you can sign up for.
I had heard of the Niagara Ultra before and when I realized it was only 3 weeks after the Ottawa Marathon I couldn’t resist. Thankfully my ever patient husband said sure, why not drive all the way to Niagara so I could run 50k. It then expanded to a family run with Mike and the boys signing up for the 10k race.
The Niagara Ultra is about as opposite of Ottawa Race Weekend as you can get. This is a small race that is capped at 800 runners for all distances combined (10k, half, full, 50k and 100k). The course starts in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake and follows the river, for the most part along a recreational paved path, to the Horseshoe Falls. It is not a closed course so you are expected to behave as all pedestrians should – crossing roads only when the way is clear and being aware of traffic when on roads. It also means that once you get to the Falls you are making your way through huge crowds of tourists. There may be people who don’t like that but I actually found it refreshing. For a period of time I needed to thread my way through people whose only priority was getting the perfect picture or selfie. I found it kept my mind busy and I wasn’t even thinking of fatigue.
Saturday was yet again a very hot day, not quite as hot as Ottawa Race Weekend but still a tough 30C plus humidity. Thankfully though this course does offer on and off shade due to the many treed areas the path went through. Imagine the Ottawa river pathway with lots of trees… and very, very large homes… and vineyards. OK, the main similarity is the river and the path, but you get the picture, and it is a very pretty picture – one worth running in!
So how do you approach your first 50k on a blistering hot day? Slow and steady! I started inadvertently in the middle, when I probably should have started right at the back. More people than I would want to count passed me in the first few km but I kept reminding myself that I had to run my own race. I wanted so badly to finish feeling strong. I was probably still a little faster than I should have been in the first 5k but I have to say it was the most patient I have ever been at the beginning of a race. I also knew that I wanted to take advantage of each of the aid stations located every 5k on the course. This was not going to be a grab-a-cup-and-gulp-and-run type of race. I was going to enjoy the true ultra experience and make sure I snacked at the aid stations! Have to say Fig Newtons have now become a favourite, but I liked the M&M’s as well. I wasn’t quite brave enough to try the Coke, just not sure how that would sit in my stomach.
There are so many other details I could write about, but ultimately there were three experiences that will stay with me for a long time to come, none of which I am sure I can do justice to through my words.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge Piano Guys fan. Their mix of piano and cello, pop and classical, often manages to have a strong emotional effect on me. So when their combination of “Fight Song” and “Amazing Grace” started playing on my iPod just as the Horseshoe Falls came into view, I was almost overwhelmed. In those moments I was so grateful, so happy, so blessed, so in awe of what I was doing and the beauty I was seeing… I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps on my skin. Sometimes there are moments when you just have to take a step back and let yourself be in awe; in awe of the beauty around you; in awe of what you are capable of doing; in awe of the gifts you have been given. And then you have to be thankful for that opportunity to find yourself in such awe. This was one of those opportunities for which I will forever be grateful.
As if once wasn’t enough, I had another incredible moment when turning around at the Falls and heading back for the second half of the course. There is a slight incline as you leave the Falls, enough that I had already told myself I would just take my walk break there even if it wasn’t the right time. But at the base of the incline another Piano Guys song started to play on my iPod, this time “Beethoven’s 5 Secrets”. The opening of this piece is an incredibly beautiful and serene cello part. As I listened to that cello I found myself in that runner’s zen that we all hope for. Honestly, I swear I floated up that hill. I think my watch did beep to tell me it was a walk break time, but I just continued running without effort. At the top of the hill I told myself that regardless of what happened on the rest of the race, these two incredible moments were worth every second of pain or fatigue I might feel.
Yet somehow I was blessed with even more. Mike kept track of where I was and managed to make sure that he and the kids met me three times along the course. Each time was wonderful but the best was having my boys join me for the last km of the race. They had run a 10k already but were willing to run more to get me to the finish line. Needless to say I was tired at this point. I may have walked some of that last km had I been alone. But my kids took on the parent role. They cheered me, told me how amazing I was and were with me every step of the way until just before the finish when they split away to let me cross the line. Mike went ahead to get final pictures and I was able to run right to him after crossing the mats. What an incredible way to finish my first ultra run.
After the race I lay exhausted but happy in the grass with a full litre of chocolate milk.
Eventually I got up to get the pizza and beer that was served post race. I only managed a few bites of pizza, but the beer went down rather well! After a short nap at the hotel it was off to dinner for margaritas and Mexican food with a group of wonderful east end Ottawa runners who very kindly invited myself and my family to celebrate with them. A night walk around the Falls (the boys had yet to see them) finished the long but incredible day.
Would I do it again – absolutely yes!!! I loved the relaxed atmosphere and different vibe of an ultra race. I put less pressure on myself to maintain a specific pace and was able to enjoy the ride. That said, I was pretty pleased with my splits. All of my 10k splits were within 4 minutes of each other, the last 2 splits about the same. For the most part my running pace stayed the same, there were just a few more walk breaks and longer aid station breaks in the last half of the race.
I have now run a half, a 30k, a marathon and a 50k since March. Other than the 30k I really haven’t worked on speed but I am incredibly proud of the endurance I have gained. So now, it will be a two week break from official training. That doesn’t mean I will be doing nothing. I orienteered last night and will again next week. On Saturday I am doing a trail obstacle course race, though I will take it very, very easy. Once the two weeks are up, it will be back to training, this time for my next 50k, The Run for the Toad. There will be new challenges this summer: I want to do more trail training, more hill work, more speed work. There is always more to do!
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