“I did it!”
I have started so many emails and texts with this line over the last few days.
I wasn’t fast, but I was steady, I was pretty strong and I had fun. I made it to the start line (at 5 a.m.!) and then to the finish line with 43 minutes to spare before the cutoff. I was one of only 15 – yes 15 – female finishers! I was right at the back but I have been told there were over 40 DNFs, so I am not going to complain about being back of the pack. Not to mention the fact I am used to that positioning anyways!
This was not an easy course. It boasts the most vertical gain of any trail race in Ontario and due to this province’s unending rain this year, it also had some serious mud to deal with. Not just mud, but clay mud. If you have never been on wet clay I can tell you it is much like being on slippery snow. If you are trying to go up a slope of wet clay there is a good chance you will slide back down. As an added bonus, clay will cling to your shoes, making your treads useless and adding some significant weight to your feet. Several times I had to stop to pull out a stick from the bottom of my shoe – you knew you had one when you were repeatedly hit on the inside of the opposite leg.
Being at a ski hill, there were also hills, plenty of hills. Even on the road sections there was no relief – you were in full sun and once again climbing hills. There were even some stairs, or rather blocks of wood jammed into what was now sloppy clay. The toughest hills by far though for me were towards the end of the first 40km loop (2 loops for 50 miles or 80k). In my head the last part of the loop would be the easiest considering we had to make it back down to the bottom of the ski hill before starting the process over again. But instead of the easy winding trail down I envisioned, I was instead faced with a gruelling mental and physical challenge of going down the mountain a bit only to go back up. Over and over again. Every time I thought I would finally head to the bottom, the route took us back up yet again. Finally there was the downhill stretch. Except it was down a ski run that I would probably have difficulties skiing. It was straight down and it hurt. It hurt my feet, my knees, my back and my poor toes were screaming. But once it was done I arrived at another aid station and was ready to hit the “Grind Trail” back up.
I have to say I really enjoyed getting to repeat the loop. Sometimes loops can be tough but I found this helped me out for the second half of the race. I certainly couldn’t remember in detail the course, but I had an idea of what was coming up and could plan for it. I distinctly remember a section where I didn’t feel like running but I also knew that I would be hitting a section of less runable trail soon so I pushed on.
I have been asked by many as to what I think about when out on the trail for so long (13 hours and 17 minutes in this case). Once again I can’t explain it but time kind of stands still out there. I run in the moment and rarely look a lot at my watch. I remember when I did look at my watch and being shocked that almost 6 hours had passed. I couldn’t figure out how that was possible. My sense of time is simply gone while on the trail. I only become more aware of it towards the end of the run when I start to panic about making cutoffs. I had no need or desire to listen to music so my iPod remained in my pack. I chatted with some runners and also spent lots of time running quietly in my own space.
Anyone who knows me knows I am not a morning person, nor a morning runner. But I will say a 5 a.m. start time is beautiful. We started under the moon and I loved seeing the snake of headlights climbing ahead of me up the trail. As I rose higher the birds began to wake up and I felt surrounded by their sound. Once up the ski hill the sun was coming up and the views opened to Georgian Bay. What a lovely way to spend an early morning.
Even that nerve-wracking time before the race was enjoyable, starting with a cab ride and a friendly driver who couldn’t believe what I was about to do. When I told him I was heading to a race of 80km there was a brief silence and then he asked, “On what?” I enjoyed telling him that this was an 80k journey by foot and asked him to think of me as he had his dinner Saturday evening.
Once at the race I found my ultra running and blogging friend Carl from https://theoldfellowgoesrunning.com . Last fall we were both at Run for the Toad and now we were getting ready for our first 50 milers. Then I ran into Peeter; we had met the previous night at the panel discussion and he had shared with me his experiences having done the race two times before.
And finally, just before the start I ran into Tony, a local runner who I first met last year at my very first 50k in Niagara. It was great to see him and wish him luck as well. The trail running world is indeed a small one.
Most interestingly I made a new friend when I “adopted” a pacer at the 52km mark. This race originally had the option of picking up a pacer at 52k aid station or for the last mile. My plan had been for my 14-year-old to join me for that last mile, but a change in aid station location due to mud meant that there would only be the earlier option. I had checked the night before though to confirm that my kids could run towards me and then run me through the finishing chute, so I knew I would have company across the line.
I was quite comfortable with completing the rest of the race without a pacer but when I got to that aid station one of the volunteers immediately asked if I wanted one to join me. My first thought was that I must look awful and they thought I needed a pacer for survival. Ends up though it was a man named Mario who for the second time had come to the race to be a pacer but ended up not needed due to his friend not making cutoffs. He was very keen to go out with a runner but no one had taken him up on his offer. He had even added in marker the words “For Hire” on his official pacer bib. So Mario became my pacer and a great one he was! We chatted on and off and that kept my mind busy. He was great to slow down when I needed him to and he even checked a few times that I was lucid and in good form. As a fast marathoner he must have felt like he was crawling at my pace but he never complained. I think I was at my most tired somewhere just before 70k but focussing on his feet moving ahead of me kept me going. That and a caffeine pill!!!
Recalling all the details of an ultra is tough. Like I said, time is different and somehow that affects what I remember. Certain things stand out but much of it is gone. It happens in the moment and somehow stays in the moment. It is what I find so special about ultra running. The rest of life is such a rush, or at times too slow. It is like utra running is the
Goldilocks moment of life – just right.
Randomly, what I do remember:
- Realizing that I am a mud convert. I love splashing through mud and I no longer care that it slows me down.
- Suddenly feeling completely fresh at 26k, as if my warm up was done and I felt ready to go.
- Cursing ski hills, both on the up and the down. They can hurt either way.
- When I hit my most tired (I think around 68k) and reminding myself how lucky I was to be out there, that it was a choice and I needed to embrace it.
- My ITB killing me on downhills, but discovering that an Advil (I know I shouldn’t do it and never have before) can make that go away.
- Making a wrong turn, despite good course markings, just because I thought all the voices I could hear off to the right were from an aid station. Ends up it was actually the zip line start. A kind Blue Mountain employee sent me back in the right direction.
- Thinking in awe of what my body and mind can do. And ultimately I think ultra running is far more mental than physical.
- Heading down the last hill and seeing my kids coming up – they ran me through the chute and across the finish line to my husband. No words.
- The excitement of learning about my kids’ and husband’s race. They were Team Tardis (faster on the inside – you need to be a Dr. Who fan to get it) for the marathon relay and they did an incredible job. So proud of my 12 and 14-year-old who flew through an incredibly tough course – my 14-year-old TWO times – and had a blast doing it. How lucky am I that my family not only accompanies me on such a journey but take part themselves!
Ultra running is definitely a mental game for me. Unlike anything else I have ever done it has taught me the power the mind has. I do everything I can to stay positive, to enjoy the moment. It sounds cliche but an ultra marathon has more to do with the journey for me than the finish line. I will not be a fast ultra runner, and I am beyond O.K. with that. In fact, I think I don’t push myself quite as hard as I could just because I want to enjoy it from beginning to end and take it all in. I like having a smile on my face and being able to tell aid station workers that I am having a great time. I like slipping into some kind of meditative zone. Conversely, I also like chatting with others and enjoying the comradery of trail runners. If my body and bank account could handle it I would run an ultra every weekend! Instead though I will just have to wait for the next one.
So what is next? I knew going into this race that I wanted to do a 100k this year. The plan was (and still is) to do one at the end of September. But as all we crazy runners feel the need to do after a race, I came home and signed up for the i2P 100k in August. My logic? The training miles are already in the bank, why not use them? And so continues the slippery slope of ultra running.