“It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” – George Sheehan
If I had to sum up everything that I love about ultra running and have learned in the last year, this might be it. When I began running long distances last year, it was with no expectations other than to finish what I started. And for most of the races that I’ve run this year, that goal has remained the same. Obviously as I complete more races (this last race marked my 7th 50km finish in the past year), I can relax a little bit and trust that I will indeed make it to the finish line – although I never take it for granted, as each race presents its own unique challenges that have to be overcome. Along the way, as my training has become formalized (aka I’m actually trying to stick to a plan), my times have naturally gotten faster. One cool way to measure this progress has been seeing how I stack up against friends in the trail running community.
However, while this presents a nice little indicator of how I’m doing, and a little bit of friendly competition on the trails can be a healthy means of challenging oneself, I’ve realized that the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is for me to beat me. The beauty of this sport is that success is so individual – for one person it might be setting a new course record, but for another it might simply be to cross the finish line before cutoff. The gamut is huge, but the glue that binds us all together is a mutual respect for each and every runner out there giving their absolute best, whatever that might be.
Cue this year’s return to the race that started it all for me. While I obviously wanted to beat last year’s time, I refrained from having a specific time goal in mind beyond that. I wanted the race to have the same feeling that it did the year before, when I ran with my heart and not my head.
As I headed to the start line, with advice from Gary swirling around my head and butterflies nesting in my stomach, I made a conscious decision to just be present in the moment and enjoy the day for whatever it might bring. With this foremost in my mind, I started the race as instructed at a “slower than what feels slow” pace, letting my legs shake out and enjoying the company and chatter of those around me. So many friendly faces on such an early morning! I loved seeing everyone embarking on this grand adventure together. The single track trail that winds up to the first aid station naturally leads itself to a conga line, and I happily trotted along without feeling the urge to speed up or pass at all. I cruised into the first aid station feeling good and enjoying the company of Jay, a cop from Alberta running Squamish for the first time, and Adam Ciuk, who I’d met through the Squish orientation runs previously.
Adam and I settled into the first big climb of the day together, and moved up Galactic Scheisse at a comfortable “chatting pace”, holding each other accountable to stay slow and steady and not go out too hard too early. We finally topped out at the anticlimactic summit, and headed into the notoriously quad punishing downhill that follows, weaving our way down Upper Powersmart, IMBA, and into Fred’s. Adam and I had been trading leads through this section, but I hit the second aid station without wanting to spend more than a few seconds chugging coke, and after launching down Word of Mouth I didn’t see him again until the finish line. I met an awesome girl named Laura during this whole downhill section, and we yo-yo’d a bit before she took off on me right before Quest. Heading into Quest alone, I was feeling pretty good overall – pleased that I had managed to keep a controlled pace during the first (almost) half, and aside from minor burning in my quads (I defy anyone not to have at least a few twinges after running those sustained, technical downhill trails) and a queasy stomach that started rebuffing gels fairly early on, I felt like the day was going really well so far.
I stopped for about 5 minutes in Quest to refill water, drink a bunch of coke, and down watermelon, which thankfully my stomach seemed to be tolerating much better than the gels and chews I was toting. After saying a quick hi to Jen Mullaly (cheering squad and photographer extraordinaire) and other awesome friends, I took off towards Garibaldi Way and the Climb Trail with lots of energy to spare. I started climbing, but soon noticed that my inner quads weren’t happy with me. Pretty soon, the warning twinges I was experiencing morphed into a full-on muscle cramp, and I literally hobbled to the side of the trail trying to dig my elbow into my leg to release the cramp. After a few minutes it subsided, and I limped along for a few minutes until my leg was fully functioning again, trying to figure out why I’d cramped. First of all, I never cramp. Ever. And generally speaking, climbs and I get along very well. I can usually just tuck my head and plug along with very little fuss. Which made this little quad-hating episode that much more unexpected.
I carried on a bit more tentatively, but found to my frustration that the cramping started to build again – this time in the other leg. #$(&#%! A 50/50 miler runner passed me as I was doubled over, and offered me salt pills (I almost gave him a sweaty hug for that, poor guy). I popped a couple and carried on, getting through the next 15km or so with a combination of running and hobbling as the cramps came and went. It was so frustrating, as I had been on top of hydration all day, pounding electrolytes and not pushing my pace too much. I’d like to say that I powered on and just ignored the pain, but I hate to admit that more energy than I would have liked went into cursing my cramping legs during that section.
I began breaking the race down by the climbs, since that seemed to be triggering my cramping (and all the while knowing that the Mountain of Phlegm still loomed over me). I hit Bonsai knowing that it had been my low point last year (I had dubbed it the “valley of death”, actually), and my saving grace this year was seeing a face up ahead that I recognized – Laura, my new friend from earlier in the race. I set her in my sights and just focused on slowly catching her, and before I knew it we were both topping out together at the tree line and Bonsai was behind me. Aha! I’d managed to get through that entire section without cramping, and I used that momentum to tick off some faster km’s on the “friendly” downhill that is Somewhere over There. Laura and I ran for a bit together, and then I said goodbye and carried on, determined to take full advantage of my legs finally working as they were supposed to. I popped out of the trails onto the forest service road that leads up to the last aid station, and made it about halfway up the gradual hill before my legs cried for mercy and I ground to an unimpressive walk. Sad but true. At this point I was just determined to get to the Mtn of Phlegm and get it behind me as quickly as possible, and every twinge in my quads filled me with “is this going to be a cramp?” terror.
I stopped at the last aid station briefly (the signs at this one were super awesome!) for more watermelon, and then took off before I became tempted to sit down and not get back up again. Side note – loved the cheering from the We Run Mas folks that were out here- huge pick me up! 🙂 As I headed into the meandering trails that lead to the last infamous climb, I focused on taking one step at a time. The cramping had gotten so bad that both legs would cramp at the same time, and I would be literally immobilized at the side of the trail cursing a blue streak until it subsided.
I had only seen a couple of other runners during the past couple of hours, but as I came around the corner heading into Endo, I spotted my good friends Shea and Melissa up ahead. My first thought was “uhh… mirage”?? Shea and Melissa have been consistently laying down ridiculously fast times this past year, and I assumed when I saw them take off at the beginning of the race (so long ago now), that our next meeting would be in the beer garden at the finish line. Apparently not so! As I got closer, I realized that Melissa looked pretty rough, and found out she was experiencing the same inner quad cramping as I was… also a first for her, too. I ran with the two of them for a few minutes (with Shea very gallantly braving my sweaty legs to work out a vicious cramp along the way), and then powered on ahead, determined to get the Mountain of Phlegm over with. As I moaned and groaned my way up the little-but-fierce hill, I followed the very distinctive sounds of a vuvuzela being manned with enthusiasm at the top. It was a much needed distraction, and I wasn’t surprised at all to see Solana at the top, alternating between taking photos and reaming on the vuvuzela.
From the top of the Mtn, I knew I was down to the last few km. My strategy: don’t think, just move. As soon as I hit the flat road, I managed to find a steady pace, and ticked off the home stretch without any major issues. I knew my parents were at the finish line (their first time at one of my trail races ever!), and having them, my better half, and my coaches all there waiting for me was huge incentive to finish strong. I stumbled across the finish line at 7:37:02, and subjected Gary to a very sweaty hug (sry Gary, but your fault for making the course so hard!).
Since the race, I’ve been doing a bit of research into muscle cramping. That, combined with an insightful debrief with Gary post-race, has helped me to realize that I still have many things to work out. For one thing, I need to come up with a plan B for days when my body is hating on gels. The fact that I only consumed one gel (plus probably two pounds of watermelon) over the whole day was quite simply not good enough – and calorie deprivation was probably one of the reasons that I began cramping. The humidity was also a big factor, and although I was drinking Heed electrolytes in my hand held bottle constantly, I didn’t start taking salt pills until after the cramping started (aka too late). I’m still not totally convinced that salt pills actually do anything to help cramping muscles based on the research I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll certainly be using them a bit more as I tinker with my hydration in the next few months. Can’t hurt to try!
I think the biggest thing that I took away from this year’s race was that even though I finished an hour and nine minutes faster than my “debut” last year, the course felt every bit as hard this time round. In hindsight, I realize I had been secretly hoping that all of my training and racing would make the course feel noticeably easier, but not so.
As I mentioned earlier on, the biggest thing I’ve learned about ultra running is that you battle yourself more than anything else. And even though getting faster is a nice side effect of training and experience, it’s going to feel just as difficult each and every time, because you are racing you. But the awesome flip side is that it doesn’t really matter how long it takes… the most important thing is to get out there and just do it.