Attitude of Gratitude – my one year ultra anniversary

So I figured I’d bring my blog out of its summer hiatus ahead of this weekend’s epic adventures. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this year and the incredible ride I’ve been on ahead of the 2014 Squamish 50km, which is set for this Sunday. Exactly one year ago, the 2013 Squamish50 was my introduction to the world of ultrarunning, and I can’t quite believe that it’s already been a year since I crawled across the finish line, exhausted, in more pain than I knew was possible, and somehow still smiling through my tears.

That race was an accident – a distance I had never even dreamed of running until about one week before when a few last minute spots opened up for the 50km course and I impulsively threw my name into the hat. I had no real race training, and about a grand total of 4 months of actual trail running under my belt to date. The longest distance I had ever run prior to this was 28km (and it nearly killed me!), and I decided to run 50 with a week’s notice. Crazy? A little…

I remember toeing the starting line with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. I had never run any of the trails in Squamish before, and all I knew about the course was that it was “hard” and supposedly had a couple of big hills in it. “No problem”, I thought, “I do the grouse grind. I can do hills”. (Ha!).

My only goal was to finish, which ended up being my saving grace, and a mantra that I stubbornly repeated for 8 hours and 46 minutes. I made a rookie mistake the night before the race, putting drugstore-variety insoles into my running shoes without ever having run with them before. I soon realized what a terrible idea it was as I noticed hot spots on the inside arches of my feet after 4km. Yep, 4km into a 50km race. I compounded this problem by refusing to pull over to deal with the issue until 10km (I was caught up in the heady excitement that comes from having energy at the beginning of the race), and by the time I pulled over and assessed the situation, I had raging blisters going already. Crap. I slapped a few bandaids on them and kept going, ignoring the raw, burning pain that just kept building. No way I was going to be taken out by something as mundane as blisters. Mind over matter, right?

To make a long (and painful) story short, I finished the race with huge gaping sores on my feet… blisters so painful that I spent the last 15km running on the outsides of my feet, which then begat several months’ worth of IT problems. Ignorance is bliss, right??

My feet at the finish line.
My feet at the finish line.

The pain from my blisters made me so nauseous that I couldn’t choke food down. I barely knew what gels were anyways, but I grabbed one from an aid station and managed to get it in, and that was it. I relied on drinking as much flat coke as I could chug at the aid stations and kept repeating my “will not quit” mantra over and over and over until finally, I dragged my carcass over the finish line and high fived some random dude with a very red beard (who knew that 7 months later he’d end up being my coach, inspiration, and such an important part of my journey?!).

The top of the mtn of phlegm. Photo credit: Rob shaer
The top of the mtn of phlegm. Photo credit: Rob shaer

Looking back on that day now, I have to laugh. I made every mistake there is to make, and it’s an absolute miracle that I ever ran again after being so traumatized. But despite all of the problems and pain, that race lit something in me. Maybe it was a craving to feel that incredible high that follows the very depths of despair that only 5 hours of running with no end in sight can produce, or maybe it was a need to prove to myself that I could be better than just finishing. Who knows. All I know is that something changed that day, and I haven’t gone back since. And I don’t want to either.

Much has changed since that disastrously epic start to my ultrarunning “career”. I have gone on to complete 5 additional 50km races since that day. Each race has seen improvement and growth, both mentally and physically. It’s still freaking tough. Every damn time. But as I get better at keeping the emotional extremes in check (aka calories, calories, calories), and tweaking my gear, fuel and hydration, there is an immense satisfaction in seeing that change happen. It’s unbelievably rewarding in a way that I have never experienced before. I have always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie (skydiving, climbing, you name it I’ll try it), but this feels different. This is something that requires hard work to be successful at. It means sacrificing weekend sleep-ins to get up and run 40km in the rain, snow or heat, or going for a run after work and skipping that 5 o’clock drink with the gang. There are days when I feel like a trail ninja, and days when I keep checking to make sure I’m not dragging 20lb of lead weights behind me, because it sure as hell feels like it.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Gary Robbins and Eric Carter of Skyline Coaching Services since March of this year, and I have definitely seen the biggest changes since then. Their expertise, patience and constant encouragement have made a huge difference to the way that I tackle training and listen to my body. I’m a smarter and stronger runner today, and I’ve seen results beyond what I could have imagined possible with their help. Gary and Eric, thank you for everything. Gary, that high five at the finish line this year is going to be pretty damn awesome. You might even get a (very) sweaty hug to go with it.

So this brings me back to this race. This race that started it all. For the first time in a while I feel nervous going into a race weekend. I know I can finish it… I’ve proved that much to myself this year. And I sure hope that I will have a faster time than last year. At least that’s the goal. Whatever that time ends up being, I’ll be content as long as I feel that I run a strong race and can see the results of this past year reflected in that. Trail running is a funny sport – it’s hard to measure improvement from race to race, as times vary wildly depending on terrain, weather, and all sorts of other variables. Running the same course is as good a way to measure improvement as any, and for that reason I feel nervous. I want to do myself proud, my coaches proud, and all of those who have supported me on my journey proud. My family sacrifices time spent with them so that I can get in my long runs, and my partner puts up with me disappearing for most of the weekend, every weekend, even though he doesn’t share my passion for this crazy sport.

When I toe the line this Sunday, my mantra for this year is going to be gratitude. Gratitude for having the health and ability to do something that challenges me so completely. I am overwhelmed by the richness that has been brought to my life by the running community, the friends that I have made along the way, and the satisfaction that comes from challenging myself to be the best that I can be. I run because it makes me feel alive. And on Sunday, I’m going to run for me.

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4 thoughts on “Attitude of Gratitude – my one year ultra anniversary”

  1. Hil, congratulations on your one year anniversary. You are truly an inspiration to so many. Your determination, attitude and positive thinking has given you a gift that many are unable to perform. Although my body is breaking down (because I am old), reading your story has given me the push I need to get out and do what I need to do…..RUN RUN RUN. The most beautiful running trails are outside my front and back door. Life is too short to just sit at these doors…..I am grateful for your friendship and enpowering so many around you. Good luck this weekend as you complete yet another ultra. Piece of cake!!! You got this!! All the best. xo

    1. Thank you so much, Jo! That really means so much to me. ❤ I'm so blessed to have friendships like this in my life! Annnnd I am so excited to see you get out there and train for your half…! You are going to rock it. 😀 let's hit the trails together!

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