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2016 was a rollercoaster. Up, down, sideways and backwards, it threw me for many twists and turns. While I’m not sad to see a new year start, I also feel like I can finally look back on the challenges and frustrations that I’ve faced down and acknowledge (begrudgingly) that they have played important roles in continuing to shape who I am, and I’ve undoubtedly learned more about myself through the adversity than I probably would have had it been all smooth sailing. That’s what the kids call irony.
In a quick nutshell, I quit my job (of almost eight years) to go back to school full time and completely change careers (graphic design! I love it!), worked through a sucky injury (torn calf! no fun!), dealt with several incredibly stressful and painful personal challenges (would rather not have!), travelled all over North America adventuring (all the adventures!), and ran a couple of rather long races (this is an understatement!) along the way.
Rather than go into all of the nitty gritty details, I thought I’d simply do a summary of some of my favourite memories from the year – no lowlights included here, because f*ck ’em.
So my proudest accomplishment as an ultrarunner to date is responsible for the colourful, shiny belt buckle that sits on my bedside table and reminds me that I am, in fact, a Fat Dog. At just under 200km and 34 hours long, Fat Dog 120 miler is a race that I have been working towards for several years, and I was very excited to finish on the podium in a race that I was just trying to finish.
Another racing highlight was the Gorge 100km, which I first ran in 2015. I went back this year to assess my progress, and managed to knock almost an hour off of my previous time, which felt pretty darn good (at least once I could walk properly again). I also spent much of the race running with the amazing Tara Holland, which basically made a 13.5 hour race feel like one (long) girls date.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the inaugural Needles 50km, which was essentially a giant road trip weekend to the Cascade Mountains with some of my favourite people. Basically take a normal person’s idea of a camping weekend, with a 50km fun run thrown in to balance out the beer and hot dogs. Perfect, right? I even wrote a fun review of the race which got published in UltraRunning Magazine, so that was kind of cool too.
So this was pretty darn cool, and a massive honour to be on the cover of Canadian Running’s 2016 Trail Special Edition. Annnd there’s my 15 seconds of fame, right there. 🙄
My friend Chris Brinlee, who I met last year in Kenya, called me up one fine Spring day to say that he was doing a feature on Vancouver’s trails for Saucony, and would I like to feature in it? Obviously I said yes, and we romped all over the trails for several rainy days (very funny, Vancouver) putting together an awesome tale of trails, along with my good friend Adam who joined us for the adventure.
I was also fortunate enough to go on multiple trips this year with Lifestraw as a Brand Ambassador, and my well-hydrated trekking took me to Colorado, Utah, and California. I was even able to reunite with some of my favourite members of the Lifestraw Kenya team…definitely some of my most memorable moments this summer!
Another favourite memory was a fast packing weekend on the Sunshine Coast Trail this summer, which was made infinitely better by the company I shared it with. Jeff, Chloe and Adam are all pretty fantastic friends of mine, and we met up with two more friends, Matt and Alexa, at the halfway point of the trail for a memorable evening of whiskey and dehydrated food – all enjoyed in a tiny cabin perched on the highest point of the trail. There just aren’t many things better than that fine combo.
After Fat Dog, I found myself fairly allergic to running for a while, which worked out well as I had a two week mountaineering and climbing trip planned for the fall. I’ve been steadily working on my mountain skills over the past few years, and this trip combined alpine camping (on top of a 10,000 foot mountain in the snow!), long days of mountaineering while wearing a heavy pack, and much travelling through glaciers. This trip took me through Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and the Rockies in BC. I’m extremely lucky to have learned my mountain skills from the very best, and my partner and resident climbing expert Jeremy Thom made this trip a grand adventure extraordinaire.
Two words: Team Pineapple✌🏼. Through the wonders of social media, I ended up connecting with the good folks at Under Armour in the fall, and subsequently hopped on a plane in October to a destination unknown to participate in and document what was being billed as the “toughest running camp ever”. Turns out it was held in what is one of the most hostile environments in North America, Death Valley.
Over three days, we ran, bonded, camped (with scorpions and tarantulas for campmates!), and embraced the suffering. It was glorious, and I loved being able to use my newly minted photography skills to document the experience for Under Armour’s social media channels as we went (although my lungs were less enthused about adding 8lb of camera gear to my body while attempting to keep up with some very speedy runners).
I can’t possibly end this post without giving a big squishy shoutout to the wonderful people in my life who have redeemed this year countless times and shown your worth when the going got tough. You know who you are😘.
I’m also super grateful for the fantastic group of strong, badass female adventurers (aka unicorns) that I am lucky to call my friends. These ladies are my favourite brand of crazy.
While 2016 has certainly been a doozy, looking back I realize that I’ve shoehorned some pretty amazing adventures into the chaos…and I’m taking forward a clearer understanding of who I am, what’s most important, and what I want.
My love affair with ultras began three short years ago, and I still remember nervously lining up for my first 50km race, the Squamish 50km in 2013, not entirely sure what I was getting myself into. After several years of running increasingly longer distances and getting stronger and smarter through the guidance of my coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter, I signed up for the Fat Dog 70 mile distance last year.
In a classic example of why I have a coach (aka my reality check and voice of reason), I had wanted to sign up for the flagship 120 mile distance immediately – go big or go home, right?? – but Gary reigned me in and told me that I wasn’t ready yet. He said I should stick with the 70 mile distance for one more year to let my body continue to adapt to the heavy mileage volume I was beginning to tackle. Those who know me know that patience is not my strong suit, and so I begrudgingly lined up to race “only” the 70 miler last year, watching more experienced friends tackle the 120 mile distance with envy. Well, I had to eat my words in a big way when I ended up having an enormously successful day, placing first female overall in what was by far my best race result to date. Having conceded that maybe Gary was right about that whole patience thing, I set my sights on running the entire 120 mile distance in 2016.
This race has been the focus of my entire year’s training, and I’ve avoided signing up for many tantalizing events in favour of saving my racing legs and logging long training miles instead. Training for a race this big while also balancing school, a full time job, and working on a career change, hasn’t been easy. There’s been setbacks, minor injuries that have derailed planned workouts, unexpected travel that has been hard to train around, and family and relationship commitments that have all at times simply had to take precedence. I’ve had to accept that sometimes things don’t always go according to plan, but that in the grand scheme of things, my training over the past several years has all pointed me in the right direction. It’s been hard to feel that I’m doing enough, because short of actually running the entire distance in training (not recommended at all), it’s impossible to perfectly replicate the conditions and length of a race that could take 40 hours to complete.
This was completely uncharted territory, and I felt it keenly. Conversations with Gary in the weeks leading up to the race focused on the mental aspect of things – because in a race this long, once you hit a certain physical pain threshold, the race becomes more about how you manage that and find a way to stay positive and motivated to continue putting one foot in front of another.
I headed into the Fat Dog weekend with no small amount of exhaustion hanging over me. A couple nasty falls on my knees two weeks earlier had left me starting an early taper and running exactly once in the 10 days before the race, and a fun but exhausting trip to Utah the week before the race had me craving more than two days of sleeping in my own bed.
Last minute changes to my pacers the week of the race had me scrambling to find someone who wanted to run 63km with me all night on four days notice (I really can’t imagine why there weren’t a lot of takers for that appealing invite…😁). Thankfully I found one – a triathlete who thought this would be fun – through a friend of my boyfriend Jer’s, and before I knew it I was driving to Manning Park with a sense of impending doom hanging over me.
The logistics of this race are daunting, and I don’t think I’d really realized how much work it would be to coordinate my crew and pacers and figure out where I’d be when, especially given that there is no cell coverage in Manning Park. I put together my best and worst case time scenarios and when I “should” potentially hit various aid stations – usually with a 3 hour window of when that could be, and with the caveat that it could be even longer if the wheels fell off the bus along the way. Really, I had no idea what to expect, and I felt like I was just throwing darts in the dark and hoping they’d stick.
After a whirlwind morning of finding a campsite and setting up tents for my crew, checking in and making it onto the shuttle bus to Princeton with about 30 seconds to spare, I felt exhausted before the race had even begun. Following the mandatory race briefing in Princeton, where my stomach started to tie itself in knots at the thought of what the following 48 hours held, I grabbed dinner with Tara and Tory, two of my very badass group of girls who were also racing the 120 mile. We carb loaded as if it was the last supper, and it kind of felt like it was. I washed down a couple of muscle relaxants with a glass of wine (my ultimate secret sleep weapon before a race – and trust me, there was no way I wasn’t going to try to get as much sleep as possible the night before I got no sleep at all), and tried to pretend that the next day was going to be no big deal. Ha.Ha.
The bus ride to the start line felt like an eternity – one of those rollercoaster rides where they buckle you in, and then you spend the next few minutes regretting your decision to get in and waiting for the inevitable sudden drop to happen. We checked in nervously, cleared the mandatory gear check (I was pretty positive mine was all there, since it felt like I’d also thrown a couple of bricks in for good measure as well), followed by about three nervous pees in between saying hi to friends and waiting for the day to begin.
Tory’s friend Jeff had also very sweetly made us girls matching buffs that read “I’m a fucking unicorn” for the race. I put mine on and didn’t take it off all race. Seemed somewhat fitting, especially given that the ratio of men to women in this race was like 70:30. It’s a toss-up whether I felt more like a fucking unicorn or just fucking stupid at this point, but either way I’ll take it.
Day 1 – Start line to Bonnevier Aid station, 66 km
With the traditional lowkey start that I love so much about ultras, the pack started moving across a narrow footbridge (that felt more like a suspension bridge than it had any right to, under the weight of all of us pack mules), and I basically walked the first KM or so as we all shuffled into a very mellow conga line that snaked up the immediate first hill. The longer the race, the slower the start, and I could already tell this one was going to be a doozy. After a few minutes the pack started to spread out a bit as people settled into their comfortable climbing pace, and I chatted with friends as we all found our rhythm. As in previous races I knew that I do best when I start out at turtle pace and then slowly build from there, so I climbed according to my heart rate, making sure my breathing was super comfortable. It was already hot (I had freaking elbow sweat before I started moving… that’s the definition of hot!), and by the time we climbed above the treeline and onto the exposed ridges it was midday and the sun was just hitting its stride. Perfect recipe for a siesta, I thought wistfully. Instead, I shuffled along, admiring the stunning terrain and trying to ignore my hamstrings, which were way too loud and angry given the fact that I’d been running for exactly 3 hours.
I was kind of glad that I was running by myself for much of the first day, as it let me stick to a comfortable pace and pay attention to eating and drinking. Aside from the occasional yelp to warn nearby bears, I was pretty quiet, content to enjoy as many ‘easy miles’ as possible.
Let me digress momentarily to talk about the general race stats for a minute, for those who aren’t familiar.
Ranked as one of the 9 toughest ultramarathons in the world, Fat Dog 120 mile is actually now 122 miles for 2016 (or 197km for those of us on the metric system), due to a “bonus” out and back section that was necessary to add to keep the good folks at BC provincial parks happy. This bumped the total elevation to 8912 meters of elevation gained, which is in fact higher than climbing Mount Everest in its entirety. Based on some very rough internet calculations about running speeds blah, blah, blah, I could expect to take somewhere between 230,000 to 270,000 steps during the race. That’s a lot of impact. Sorry knees.
When planning, I’d broken the race into three parts to wrap my head around it: Day 1, Night 1, Day 2.
Night 2 was also floated as a horrid but real possibility, but goal #1 was to avoid going into the second night at all costs, so I kept that fourth part firmly in the dark recesses of my brain, only to be entertained if the wheels fell completely off the bus.
So now that we’re clear on exactly what I was embarking on, back to Day 1. As I said, I spent much of it running alone, content to ponder important questions such as WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? This question really doesn’t have a good answer other than “to see if I can”, so it tends to be a bit of an endless loop conversation. Good thing I’ve got nothing but time.
I was rudely jarred out of my musings when I ran into several gentlemen from Idaho, Derek and Kyle, who were walking when I came along at a decent clip. They decided to try to use me to jumpstart their pace again, and we soon settled into a pleasant little trio for the next few hours. Part of what I enjoy so much about these races is that you get to know people by virtue of a) having nothing better to do with your time than share your life story as you go, and b) running slowly enough to talk comfortably in the first place. It does help the time go by, though, and I enjoyed the break from talking to myself. We navigated the notorious Pasayten river crossing with some head dunking and cooling off (at knee deep levels, it wasn’t exactly epic, but it sure felt great on the feet), and ran the boring few KM along the highway into Bonnevier aid station.
This marked the end of the first day for me, and it was where I was planning to take my first real break to eat, change gear, and get ready for the long night. Jer (with doggy co-pilot Odin) was the captain of my crew extraordinaire, and his first big job was to meet and shuttle my night pacer, Mike, to Bonnevier aid station from where Mike would later finish. Due to that whole no cell coverage thing, I had come up with VERY approximate guesstimates of when they should expect me, with a 2 hour window of time on either side, and so he really had no real idea when exactly I’d be arriving. We both had to just stick to the plan and hope it all worked out.
Luckily, I wasn’t too far off my first estimated time, arriving at around 8:30pm just as it got dark, and about an hour after my “fastest predicted time”. This suited me fine, as it meant I was keeping my pace under control, and it was a nice boost to see Jer, Jackie (who was my pacer for the following day but showed up at Bonnevier to say hi before bed), and my new friend Mike. I seriously can’t thank Mike enough for being willing to pace a random stranger for 63km all night – it truly made a difference to my race to have the company during what I knew would be a particularly challenging section of the race for me.
Night 1 – Bonnevier to Cascade Aid station, 63km
I perched in a chair at Bonnevier for 15 min or so as Jackie changed my shoes and socks for me (she’s very brave, and didn’t even comment on the smell), and Jer fed me banana bread and chocolate milk while Odin licked my salty legs (thanks bud). I changed into a merino wool shirt, decided it was too warm for pants so stuck with my shorts, grabbed my borrowed Black Diamond carbon fiber poles (courtesy of my awesome RMT Matt) and my trusty Petzl Nao headlamp, and headed into the night with my new buddy Mike.
I felt pretty strong after taking the time to eat and change my gear, and Mike and I powered up the Three Brothers climb with little effort. We passed a few racers along this section, which is always a nice confidence boost, and I felt like I was moving smoothly. I had only done one all night run prior to the race, on a “practice round”, so this was still very new territory to me. The Perseid meteor shower was happening during our race, and a few times I tried to dim the headlamp and enjoy the stars as we ran. There is something very peaceful about running at night, but I’d imagine that if I was on my own I would have felt a lot less at ease than I did having Mike to chat with – especially given that we’d been warned about a Grizzly bear that had been recently active in the area. Grrrrreat, right? Tara, who was in front of me, actually saw an entire bloody deer leg lying on the side of the trail along this section. Quite glad I missed that.
We ran into Dennis and his pacer Nicola along here, who were stopped on the side of the trail to talk some sense into his uncooperative glute, as well as one of my running club friends Michael Senior, who I yo-yoed with most of the night. The ultra trail running community is a small one, and being able to see so many friends throughout this race was a definite pick-me-up.
The newly added 4km out and back section to the Buckthorn aid station (with several hundred meters of added up and down) were along this section, and as we turned off the main trail to head down to the aid station, I had my first “pout” moment of the race. “This is so unnecessary”, I grumbled. “Who even needs this aid station anyways?” “Why can’t we just skip it altogether? Each rock on this washed out trail felt like an added insult, and poor Mike very graciously ignored my little tantrum as we plodded along. My excuse is that we were approaching midnight, and it was officially past my bedtime. 😉
When we hit the aid station, I felt better instantly seeing friends Dave and Brandi there. They had decorated their aid station as a Mexican fiesta, complete with sombreros, quesadillas, and tequila. I declined the tequila (too early in the race, seemed like a terrible plan), but happily devoured a cheesy corn tortilla that Dave had specially sourced and made me, knowing that I would have trouble finding gluten free food at most of the aid stations. It was heavenly, and silenced my grumbling handily.
Revived, we headed back into the night to trek back up the “unnecessary section” and onwards. This section from 1 – 3:30am or so was probably my low point of the night energy wise, and I struggled to keep my pace consistent, settling for a run/walk/shuffle combo and content to maintain forward momentum. I wasn’t really sleepy so much as tired of running, which was a bit of a problem given that I was only about halfway through the race at this point. Our chatting was reduced to Mike reminding me at half hour intervals to eat, interspersed with me wondering where the hell the next aid station was, and if someone had possibly moved it farther away just for fun.
The Nicomen Lake aid station finally arrived, and it was also manned by a group of my trail running friends, Josh, Adam, Matt and Alexa, who had all hiked in for hours with heavy packs of water and food to be out there all weekend. Remote access terrain is part of what makes this race such a logistical challenge to pull off, but these little backcountry aid stations are like oasis for the weary, and having a friendly face and a warm piece of food waiting for you in the middle of the night is enough to bring tears to the eyes.
From Nicomen Lake, I remembered from the 70mile course that the trail descends endlessly for a couple hours, and I decided to open up the legs a bit and throw caution to the wind. It felt great to move faster than I had so far all race, and Mike and I jumped and scrambled over roots and the occasional fallen tree (there really wasn’t many, thanks to the tireless work of volunteers before the race who cleared over 1500 trees prior to the race weekend!). I slowly felt my energy restored with the promise of a sunrise in the not too distant future. I had been told that seeing the sun come up would give me an instant jolt of energy, and it was true. Something about knowing that I had made it through the night gave me wings on my feet, and I flew along the trail with abandon as birds chirped good morning and it was finally light enough to put away the headlamps.
As we headed into Cayuse Flats Aid Station (getting hugs from friends Heather and Johnny, who were manning this aid station), I knew we were only 5 miles away from Cascade aid station, which officially marked the end of Night 1 for me, and where I was eagerly awaiting hugs and food from my crew, which now included my mom and dad, who had trekked out to meet me and make me breakfast at the start of the morning. I started getting a bit emotional as we came into the aid station and I saw them, knowing that they don’t see me race very often. I had just run all day, all night, and I still had another day of running in front of me. The enormity of what I was doing sunk in a bit, and I just felt very grateful that I was still moving well and feeling strong. I had now gone farther than I ever had before, and there was still more to come.
I scarfed down some bacon and eggs at the aid station, forcing myself to eat even though my body really didn’t want to. Side note on eating: I was mostly using a combination of Tailwind (an endurance carbohydrate/caffeinated powder in my water), dates, and some gels and chews, supplemented with typical aid station fare such as coke, watermelon, pickles and chips. Quite a cocktail, but so far it seemed to be staying in fairly well, which I was grateful for after seeing other runners dealing with puking and massive GI issues.
After changing tops into a second trusty Under Armour SPF 50 long sleeve (perfect way to avoid needing to reapply sunscreen every 5 minutes in the heat) and changing my socks again, it was time to start Day 2. Jackie and I were issued two neon safety vests for the next 3km section which ran along the highway, and I left Cascade AS with sweaty hugs for my parents and Jer, doggy kisses from Odin, and massive thanks for Mike (I spared him the sweaty hug, which I’m sure he was quite grateful for). As I was leaving, I was told I was currently 5th place female, which was a pleasant and unexpected surprise – I must have passed more women through the night than I thought. It was hard not to go tearing out of there after hearing that, but Jer calmed me down and reminded me that my game plan was to save my racing until I hit Skyline aid station (36km from the finish), and there was still a long ways to go.
Day 2 – Cascade to Finish, 68km
Jackie was full of energy and ready to tackle the remaining 68km of the race with me (how lucky am I to have friends who think running 68km is an easy day??), and as we chatted and shuffled along I could almost convince myself that I hadn’t already been running for close to 24 hours at this point.
The next 38km section along the Skagit river is relatively flat and rolling by Fat Dog standards – which, while that might sound ideal to some people, it definitely doesn’t to me. Because I was never really a runner up until a few years ago, and much of trail running consists of power hiking the uphills and letting gravity move you downhill, flat and boring terrain kills my mojo more than anything. Give me some gnarly, rooty excuse for a trail any day, just please don’t make me run, and run, and run some more.
I’d warned Jackie to brace herself for my grumpiness through this section, which she did a great job of ignoring as we ultra shuffled along. I would bargain with her to let me walk every few minutes, and she would ask me if I could find another gear and “pick it up a bit”. Before the race I had told Jackie, who is a veteran of 100+ mile races, to give me tough love, so even as I gritted my teeth each time she coaxed me into running/penguin shuffling again, I still secretly thanked her for it. This was my goal race of the year and I’ve worked pretty darn hard to get here, and there’s no way I wanted to finish and feel like I could have done more.
This whole section was endless, and it was definitely my low point of day two. Nutrition was reduced to liquid form by this point, as my body was just really done with running food and there was limited options for “real food” that my celiac self could eat. I’d asked Jer the night before to pick up all the chocolate milk he could find, and at every aid station he would hand me a bottle of either chocolate milk or those Starbucks Frappuccino drinks and make me chug it before I left the aid station, and then hand me one for the road. Have dairy farm, will travel. Good thing I love chocolate milk, and even in the heat it seemed to go down and stay down.
As we came into Skyline aid station, I felt a rush of excitement. This was the section that had made my 70 mile race so successful last year, and I was determined to do it again. I hadn’t been passed by anyone all day, so I knew I was doing a good job of pacing myself. If I could only find my climbing legs one more time, I’d be good.
Somewhere in here I’d moved into 4th place woman, and Jer let me know that the 3rd place woman was about 45 minutes ahead of me but that she didn’t look all that strong. I filed this tidbit away, knowing that it was largely out of my control whether I caught her or not, and I focused on dealing with my blisters (which had gotten quite ugly and taken over the ball of one of my feet as well as a bunch of the toes). After forcing down a few bites of scrambled eggs that Jer had made for me, I grabbed my poles for this last gruelling climb, handed out sweaty hugs and kisses to Odin and Jer, and estimated that I’d see them at the finish line again in around 7-8 hours. The last couple of small aid stations were perched on the side of the hill with no crew access, so for this final section I was on my own.
We set off from Skyline at a brisk hike, as I had no intention of attempting to run the climb at all. My goal was just to make steady progress and hopefully do so faster than the racers in front of me. Jackie reminded me to drink my chocolate milk at intervals, and each time we hit a slightly runnable grade in the climb she’d gently suggest running until the next steep part. Sometimes I ignored her, sometimes I gave it a go. I generally felt pretty good, but it was also the middle of the day by this point and I knew the heat was going to sap my energy more than anything. And after running for 27 hours at this point, I use the word “energy” loosely. It was more like “motivated to finish as quickly as possible”.
We hit the second-to-last aid station, Camp Mowich, where several cheerful volunteers poured black coffee down my throat while I sat on a log and caught my breath for 5 minutes. We were trying to figure out how far the 3rd place woman was at this point, but the volunteers here didn’t have a clear memory of when she’d come through. I decided to just keep worrying about my own race, and we set off on the fairly runnable 8km to the very last aid station, Sky Junction (so named because it was literally perched on the side of the mountain on one of the final climbs). As we climbed the switchbacks towards it, I saw a runner up ahead of me. At first glance I thought it was another guy, but then Jackie whispered to me “I’m pretty sure that’s the third place woman up there…” She looked back, and I looked at Jackie. Oh my god, we’d made up the 45 minutes on that climb and caught her. I couldn’t believe it.
We came into the aid station almost simultaneously with her, and in that moment I knew exactly what I needed to do. I had to keep going and not stop to refill my water or grab the glass of coke that I’d been daydreaming about for the last hour. It was the only way to make sure that she didn’t catch a second wind and start to chase me. I looked at Jackie as the other runners filled their packs and enjoyed the array of food on the side of the trail, said “If you have enough water to make it to the finish line, we aren’t stopping”, and then the two of us just kept going through the aid station. I knew I had to look strong as we went, so I power climbed and ran my way uphill until I was sure we were out of sight – and then promptly started gasping for breath.
The combination of the heat, the running uphill, and the adrenaline of just moving into 3rd all caught up with me pretty quickly, and I spent a minute getting myself back together before taking off at a fast clip again. As we climbed the four cruel, steep summits before the trail finally heads down to the lake, I put Jackie on female-spotting duties while I just struggled to get up each endless hill. She couldn’t see any sign that the woman we’d passed was chasing us, but I couldn’t relax. Here we were, 33 hours into the longest race of my life, and I couldn’t believe I’d just moved into 3rd. There was no way I wasn’t bringing this home now if I could help it.
We finally topped out at the last summit, said hi to Sasha and Brian McCurdy who were perched at the top taking photos, and Sasha called out “you’re in third place, you’re doing so well!” as I went passed. I replied: “I know!! And please don’t tell the woman behind me where I am!” So sneaky, I am. 😉
We finally started the descent, and Jackie hopped in front of me so that all I would have to do is focus on her feet. We flew down the trail (well flew as fast as one can after running 190km), and I sparingly sipped my water that was now perilously low following my whole “let’s not stop to refill our water at the aid station” plan. It helped that I remembered this section well from last year, and I knew we had 7 downhill km’s to go and that was it. We counted them down, and I turned my GPS watch on for this part so that I could yell out each km as we went. We finally hit the bottom of the lake as I took my final sip of water, and I realized that I had done this section much faster than I had planned to – in fact, I worried that my family wouldn’t even be at the finish line yet, since I was a good hour ahead of my “best guess” time. There was nothing I could do about that, though, and as we crossed the Rainbow Bridge that marked 1km to the finish line, I could see the finish line and the glowing time clock from across the lake.
I started waving madly at the spectators, in the desperate hopes that my family might be there and somehow recognize the pink dot hobbling around the far side of the lake towards them. (Turns out later that my mother did, recognizing my particular brand of shuffling as only a mother can. Well done, mother dearest). With a few more glances behind me to make sure that I wasn’t going to be passed at the last second, it finally started to hit me that I was going to finish this huge, giant bitch of a race. Jackie and I were both sniffling as we came around the corner and I started the home stretch, and I suddenly saw my mom, dad, youngest sister Claire, Jer and Odin all jumping up and down right at the finish line chute. I started sprinting as Jackie dropped back and let me cross alone, and in a few short steps it was all over. 33 hours and 55 minutes, and I was finally allowed to stop.
I collapsed on the ground, unable to stand up for one more second, and just grinned at everyone as they gathered around. I’ve never been more sweaty, filthy, exhausted, and sleep deprived in my life, but I’ve also never felt as powerful, strong, and proud of an accomplishment as I did in that moment. I’ve watched the incredulity in everyone’s eyes all year long every single time I’ve talked about this almost 200km long race that I was going to attempt, and I had so much secret doubt in my mind about whether I could even do it – whether my body would allow me to go that far, or whether I would hit the point where I’d have to stop and accept that that was far enough. Considering that in just over three years I’ve gone from barely running 10km to running almost 200km at one time, and knowing that this race was 80km longer than anything I’ve run before, I knew it was going to push me to my limits when I signed up for it. I also recognized that there was a very real chance of failure, and I had to accept that risk when I took on the challenge. But to face the fears and beat them, proving to myself how strong I really am, is one of the most incredible feelings and moments of my life.
I’m so incredibly proud of everyone out there who finished this race, especially my girls – Tara, who finished freaking 2nd place woman with an incredible time of 32:30, and Tory, who finished 6th place woman in 36:48. You girls are so strong and I feel so privileged to have you in my life. You inspire me to push my limits!
Huge thanks to Race Director Heather MacDonald, and Course Director Peter Watson, as well as the legions of volunteers who make this such a truly special and remarkable race experience.
I also cannot thank my crew and pacers enough. It takes a village to pull off a race with this many logistical challenges, and I was very lucky to have such a great team at my side. My boyfriend Jer shuttled pacers, drove all over several provincial parks to wait for me for hours at tiny aid stations armed with chocolate milk, bandaids and chafe stick, words of encouragement and sanity, and provided an endless supply of sweaty hugs as required. Thank you for being there for me, babe. Odin provided doggie kisses and presided over many a dusty aid station, and my incredible pacers Jackie and Mike made sure I didn’t fall off a cliff or get lost, kept me from hallucinating, reminded me to eat even when I didn’t want to, and graciously put up with my sporadic attempts at running and racing as we counted down the many miles together. It was also very special having my parents involved in this race, and seeing them over breakfast at the beginning of Day 2 gave me the boost I needed to make it through the day. Having them there at the finish line twelve hours later, along with my youngest sister Claire, meant the world to me. It’s a crazy sport that I’ve stumbled into, and to be able to share my success with my family really means everything. My best friend Jee wasn’t able to be there in person, but she’d made me funny notes and drawings to read at each aid station along the way, and I faithfully read and loved each one (and maybe shed a tear or two when I did).
I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank Gary and Eric from Ridgeline Athletics. Having worked with you guys for 2.5 years now, I can honestly say that it’s been one hell of a journey, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without all of your expertise and faith in me. Looking forward to seeing where we go next. I’ve also worked very closely with Sean Causier from Twist Conditioning for the past 6 months, and adding strength training into my training has made a massive difference to my running. I’m stronger and less injury prone, and I know my glutes thanked those many squat reps every time I climbed uphill (which was quite a lot). In that vein, Matt Thompson from Fortius Sport and Health Centre is much more than my pole lender – he’s an accomplished ultra runner and Fat Dog racer in his own right and a fantastic RMT, and he’s patched me up many times in the months leading up to this race.
As I said, it wasn’t just me out there. It was me + every friend, coworker and loved one who sent me notes of encouragement before the race, or kept me in their thoughts every second for the long 34 hours that I was out there running for, or believed in me even when I secretly doubted myself. I carried that love and support with me every step of the way, and it carried me when the going got tough.
So immediately following the race, as soon as my body gave itself permission to chill the f**k out, I started getting nauseous, which was shortly followed by puking. This has happened to me at the finish of other races, so I wasn’t too worried, but as it carried on for hours through the night I started to be concerned that I wasn’t replacing all the fluid and calories that I’d obviously lost during the race. Even through the awards ceremony the next morning, I was only able to sip on water, which was clearly less than ideal. I knew that I’d be flying out to California as part of a trip with Lifestraw two days later, so I prioritized rest, massage, and physical recovery, all the while struggling to get my appetite back.
By the time I left for California I was feeling pretty good, all things considered, and I didn’t think twice about the fact that I probably should have still been taking it easy. By Thursday, which was now five days after the race, I developed a massive headache which I chalked up to ongoing dehydration combined with the heat and altitude of the northern California mountains where I was based out of. By Friday morning, I was feeling more and more nauseous, combined with dizziness and lightheadedness. As part of the event setup I was hauling a table up the side of the ski hill towards one of the climbing cliffs (don’t ask), when I started to feel short of breath, almost passed out, and started puking uncontrollably. Recognizing that I couldn’t ignore this, I crawled back to my hotel room for a couple of hours wishing that it would pass, before finally acknowledging that it wasn’t going to. I hobbled to the medic tent and collapsed there in the fetal position. My stupid, stubborn self was so upset that I had to admit weakness, especially when I was supposed to be helping out at this event, not ending up comatose in the medic tent. This was my first moment of having to confront my own physical limitations. I hadn’t placed enough importance on recovery following the race, heading back to work the day after and then flying to California two days after that for a week full of outdoor activities. In hindsight, I should have slowed down a little bit and given myself room to heal. But since I didn’t, my body took matters into its own hands.
By the evening I was so chronically dehydrated that the call was made that I needed to go to the hospital for IV treatment as my electrolytes were so badly out of whack that I couldn’t get them back on track without some help. Bryan, who was there with Lifestraw at the event with me, was an incredible support, and he drove me to the hospital 45 minutes away while I puked in a bag at the mere mention of “burritos” (poor Bryan, he instantly regretted suggesting a food stop after that). Glamorous, this was not. One quick trip to the ER followed by several bags of IV fluids and a bunch of bloodwork and tests which thankfully came back showing that everything else was working fine, I was back at the resort, finally ready to listen to my body and slow down.
The rest of the weekend reinforced that point, as with every scheduled group run, hike, or other activity, I had to wave everyone off and stay firmly perched in my chair with my popsicles and gallons of electrolytes. It was slow going getting fluids back in, even with the IV kick start, and it took a while before my body stopped rejecting all attempts at food. I had to learn to ask for help, to be okay with not being the strong one, and to let others see me when I was weak. None of these are easy things for me to accept, but I also took a lot away from this experience and still managed to enjoy my time connecting with the awesome attendees and organizers at the REI Outessa Summit (from my chair).
Final thoughts, as I wrap up this post that is now almost as long as my race.
Also, I have the best damn crew, family, friends and support network that I could possibly ask for.
And finally. I signed up for this race “to see how far I can go”. I guess I still don’t know the answer to that, but as I start to plan out goals for 2017, I know that I’m a) stronger than I ever knew I was, and b) still have so much to learn. The journey continues, and it keeps getting better. And longer. 😁
A few months ago, totally crazy friends of mine convinced me to sign up for a brand new, invite-only “fatass” style race being held in the Cascade mountains. “Let’s road trip!”, they said. “It’ll mostly be a camping trip with a (50km) side of running thrown in!”, they said. “Who doesn’t love a good fun run?!”, they said.
They were right on all counts, and then some. What they didn’t mention was the fact that there was approximately 10,000 feet of climbing crammed into this slightly-over-50km distance, or that the route would cover some of the most challenging sections of the renowned Cascade Crest 100 miler route (I suppose in hindsight, the fact that it was being organized by that very same race director, Rich White, should have been my first clue).
Side note: for those who don’t know, a fatass style event generally means that you are mostly on your own out there, aside from an informal group start and just enough flagging and aid on the course to keep it from being a self supported adventure. Personally, I love fatass events. All the fun of a race minus the race. Everyone wins. If they don’t get lost, that is.
I packed my bags for the weekend in a flurry of last minute panic, not sure exactly what the aid stations would offer at this minimal style event, and headed towards Easton, WA, with Tara Barry and Alicia Woodside, two of the members of the “Canadian contingent” that was proportionally well represented. We left Vancouver quite late, as we all had that minor issue of jobs (aka paycheque that funds adventures) to deal with, but eventually found the farm we were camping on and wandered through a field or two (or was that the airfield? Kind of looked the same..) in the pitch black before spotting Tory’s epic new Van/Portable home and setting up camp noisily (sorry, everyone else who thought a group of teenage hooligans was passing through!).
I had originally planned on taking the early start option at 6am, since I’d heard rumours that this course was a slow one and I really didn’t want to run for any longer than I had to (can you sense how enthusiastic I was about the running part? Mostly I was just excited to sit in a camp chair and drink). Due to the late arrival, however, we all opted to sleep in and take the regular 8am-ish start…which we took a little too literally, showing up to register just as the race (I mean fun but long run) was about to start.
The Americans humoured our disorganized selves and let us get checked in and organized (my story was it was jet lag that made us late, not the wine we drank from the bottle in Tory’s van after our arrival). I was impressed by the detailed map and step by step directions we were all given and required to carry, and started to feel a bit more optimistic about the prospect of not ending up lost, which I had more or less considered inevitable.
With a cheerful 3-2-1, Rich and his co-conspirator Adam Hewey shooed us out of the gates, and so the inaugural Needles 50km began. I loosely stuck with our group, and soon settled into a comfortable pace with Tara and Alexa. Well, comfortable for them at least. I quickly realized that my whole “not really feeling this whole running all day thing” was translating in a whole lot of unmotivated movement, which is really quite counterproductive. I tried giving myself an attitude adjustment, which didn’t work all that well, and then resigned myself to keeping Tara and Alexa in sight as they floated up the ridges
Ah yes. UP. That part is key. There is lots of up in this course. It doesn’t get the name “Needles” for nothing. In fact, the course profile is basically one big climb followed by about 6 steep, vertical and switchback-less summits (and equally steep descents), followed by a long descent into Aid Station #1, and then repeat that entire formula again.
Second very exciting thing: a cameo from perennial favourite race photographer Glenn Tachiyama, who was perched on one of the many ridge climbs capturing our suffering as we stumbled towards him. For the first time ever, I didn’t even have the energy to even fake a run as I went past him. It was one of those days.
Thirdly, both the flagging and the Aid Stations were bigger and better than advertised and expected. There still wasn’t much “comfort” flagging to assure you that you were on the course, but every time it counted (intersections or other potentially confusing areas), it was well flagged and I never once felt the need to pull out my mandatory map to figure out where I was. The Aid Stations were like two little oasis for me, stocked with all the delicious comforts ultra runners love to inhale (Coke! Pickles! Chips! Watermelon! …and the piece de resistance at AS #2, Popsicles!!!). In general, I was really blown away by how well run this “barebones” event was. Not to mention all entrants received a cool topography buff – definitely a nice touch. Kudos to all involved in making this event such a great success.
Climbing out of the first aid station, I maintained my tenuous connection to Tara and Alexa, and the time passed by as we chatted with other runners and enjoyed the beautiful single track (as it disappeared above us, heading ever upwards). I had found a solid climbing rhythm by this point, and the “needles” on the second half didn’t seem quite so pointy as they did on the first half. All good things must come to an end, however, and my little bubble came crashing down as I toe-picked on a rock heading down from Thorp Mountain (too busy staring at the view and not my feet!?), and went down hard in a blaze of flailing windmill-arms. More devastatingly, I landed exactly on my knees, which I had unfortunately smashed only 4 days earlier, and was already nervous about aggravating. After a few moments of lying in the dirt having a pity party and wishing for an Undo button on the last 30 seconds of the day, I picked myself up and did a little once over. Bloody knees, check. Funny sensation in my right knee like my kneecap was moving around in its socket, check. Consensus: not great, but still mobile. Alexa and Tara kindly slowed down for me as I walked for a few minutes and performed some minor self-assessments on my knees before deciding to keep going at a more conservative pace. Big shoutout to Tara and Alexa for being so unwilling to drop me, despite my adamant insistence they go ahead without me (I was secretly sooo glad they didn’t, tho!). ❤
As we trucked along, I suddenly felt a sharp needle-like sensation on my left quad that felt suspiciously like something just bit me. The almost immediate swelling of the area confirmed my suspicion quickly, although it had been years since I was last bit or stung by anything more than a mosquito. However, I do love a good science experiment, and I watched in morbid fascination as my leg ballooned as I ran.
Luckily we weren’t that far from the finish (about 10km out at that point), but we were still far enough away to allow time for my camelback bladder to somehow become undone, and subsequently dump the contents of my almost full 1.5 litre bladder down my back. By this point I had already acknowledged that this just wasn’t my day, despite it being a rather beautiful one amidst some rather spectacular scenery, and I resigned myself to finishing the day looking like I had done a very thorough job of peeing my pants. You win some, you lose some. Let’s just call this race great mental training.
The finish line lay at the end of the long, grass airfield that bordered our campsite, and I staggered across, feeling rather grateful to stop moving. Massive love to Tara and Alexa for the fantastic company and incentive to keep moving out there all day. The relaxed atmosphere at the finish was pretty awesome, as were the massive bins of pasta and salad that someone had prepared for everyone to share post-race. Amazing! We lounged on the grass on the field, basking in the glow of the warm July sun and stuffed full of good food, cheering until the very last racers came in. (Building a human “bridge” for the husband and wife duo that made up our last finishers was a total highlight. I love this community!)
As I looked around, I was reminded of (some of the reasons) why I love this sport so much. It may not have been my easiest day out there, but I really can’t argue with the feeling of immense contentment that I still feel after I finish each race and curl up somewhere comfortable with a bag of potato chips and some good friends. It really can’t be beat.
While official results show that we tied three-ways for 3rd place female in a time of 8:13, Tara and Alexa were definitely the stronger ones out there on that day, and I’m just glad I could hang on for the ride and spend some time with these badass girls <3. And results completely aside, the beauty of a fatass event is that it really isn’t about racing or who placed where – it’s about spending time in incredible places, exploring new terrain, and spending time with friends. The inaugural Needles 50km accomplished this in spades.
Last week, I watched a short video that was making the rounds on social media called “Everybody Dies, But Not Everybody Lives”. If you haven’t watched it yet, take 6 minutes and do so now. You won’t regret it.
It resonated with me in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time, and I found myself practically shouting “YES!” as the author describes how our enemies, Fear and Doubt, can cripple us and prevent us from ever stepping outside “the box” and truly living. Have you ever felt that you were your own worst enemy? That the doubts and fears that lurk in the dark recesses of your mind have stopped you from making bold choices that you know could set you free, if only you were willing to accept risking failure in order to pursue what your heart tells you matters most?
I would also add a third enemy to this list: Complacency. Complacency is something that our society is far too good at. We start out with lofty dreams, ambitions, and ideas of where our place in this world will be and what indelible mark we’ll leave as our legacy, but then shrink in the face of adversity and obstacles and end up settling for “good enough”.
I’ve been guilty of it for most of my adult life. Because of some major health problems that I dealt with while in university, I instead ended up having to take a full medical withdrawal from school because I was too sick to carry on – something that crushed me and my “teacher’s pet, straight A student” soul. I had never had to accept failure before, especially when it was because of something outside my control, and I didn’t know how to handle it. When I was well again, I ended up taking on what I considered to be a temporary job at the time, working in the public sector in a union and making decent money for shuffling paper around. Good for paying off student loans and bills – bad for my soul.
Fast forward 7.5 years, and I’m still working for the same company. Different job, which has admittedly given me a huge range of skills and experience that I am entirely grateful for, but at the end of the day it still isn’t where I ever intended to be. Over these last, long years, I’ve slowly lost the part of me that challenged the norms and wanted more from life than simply status quo, and instead I settled for something that was comfortably “square”. It happened so subtly that I barely noticed, and I did a good enough job of filling my non-working hours with things that I loved so as to make it palatable, but eventually I’ve arrived at a point so far from where I started, that I’ve been forced to stop and confront the passage of time and what I’ve done with it.
Circumstances in my life over the last few months have caused me to take a good, hard look at where I’m spending my precious, valuable time. We don’t really think about how much of it we fritter away until we are confronted with the reality that it is not infinite – that while we may not all get told exactly how much time we’ve got to spend on this earth, it doesn’t mean it’s not ticking by just the same.
It hit me that living my life as I am, counting down each Monday to Friday just to get to Saturday and Sunday, isn’t nearly good enough. Sure, I spend every moment outside of my 9 – 5 job cramming in as much activity as I possibly can, but the reality is that I still spend the majority of my waking hours wishing them away in order to savour a precious few. I’m not saying we all have to quit our day-jobs to travel the world (and indeed, speaking with friends who do that for a living, it’s not nearly as easy a path as it sounds), but what I’m saying is that whatever it is we do with our time, we should make sure that we are doing it for the right reasons. There are many great reasons to stay in a job that isn’t the “Dream Job” if it serves other important purposes in our lives, but “fear”, “doubt”, or “complacency” are just not good enough.
Becoming an ultra-runner has taught me many life lessons, some of which I’m just starting to work through now. I’ve spent countless hours over the last few years battling myself on the trails, pushing through miserable workouts even when I’m exhausted because I know that the end goal is worth the temporary pain, and I’ve repeatedly broken my own glass ceiling regarding what I once deemed “possible”. That alone has revolutionized my perspective, and it’s forced me to find new ways to challenge myself as I keep redefining my own limits. But even as I’ve grown personally through my relationship with running, I’ve still remained stuck in a comfortable rut of my own creation, afraid to leave something that makes life easy in search of something that challenges me to be more.
This past semester, I enrolled in several strategic marketing courses, trying to “dip my toes” in a different direction, and sat in a classroom again for the first time in 8 years. As hard as it’s been to add schooling to my already hectic daily schedule, it’s also been a huge eye opener for me. Being back in an atmosphere of learning is both inspiring and motivating, and it made me realize how little energy and importance we assign to emphasizing continuous learning as a society. Simon Fraser University recently introduced a series of courses designed for ages +55 and up, and they’ve proved immensely popular, with senior students lining up at the university to enroll in options ranging from history and philosophy to quantum physics. Seeing how much joy and satisfaction these seniors get from continually challenging themselves to learn and grow made me realize how tragic it is that we ever allow ourselves to stop learning and growing. Knowledge is the key to growth in all aspects of our lives, and we should consider ourselves to be lifelong students, and masters of nothing.
I’ve just now set in motion plans that will change my current course quite drastically and allow me to pursue my dreams again, terrifying as that still seems. My only regret is that it took me this long to break free of the fear and doubt that have tried to hold me back. But this much I now know: we can’t control everything that life throws at us, but we can choose our response to it. We can’t look back, but we can and should look forward. I choose to make the most of what I’ve been given, and to appreciate every damned bit of it.
When I look back at my life in its totality, I want it to be through eyes that know that for better or worse, I’ve given each new day my all. That’s all we can really ask for, and it’s more than enough.
On April 2nd I raced Rainshadow Gorge 100km for the second year in a row. This race was the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, as I attempted to fit high volume training mileage into a schedule already jam-packed with work, school, and life responsibilities. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t always hit 100% of the runs that I was supposed to do, and I had a couple good ol’ fashioned meltdowns along the way (cured by foregoing workouts for chocolate, wine and Netflix). However, looking back at my training block now, I’m still pretty damn proud that I managed to fit in the training that I did, and I’m slowly getting better at being okay with adapting to Plan B when Plan A just isn’t happening.
One of the things I see a lot of among fellow ultrarunners is the propensity to go 100% balls-to-walls until we burnout, recover enough to do it again, and then repeat the whole darn cycle. It’s easy to do, even unintentionally, as we continuously set bigger and bigger race goals. It’s even more of a danger when we use races as springboards to longer races (Ie. Running several “C” goal “shorter” ultra races consecutively over a few months as we head towards the larger “A” goal of the 100k/100m/long-fucking race, with no recovery in between… after all, the shorter ones are just catered training runs, right?😉).
The danger in that strategy is that it presents the temptation to push too hard at each event, without giving our bodies the time they deserve to recover after that level of effort. Some runners are really good at using races as long training runs, and they can resist being drawn into pushing harder than they should be. I totally commend them for it, and I’m slightly jealous. Personally, I’m still working on it. I’m definitely better at running smarter and more conservative races than I was a couple of years ago, but if I’m totally honest with myself, I still end up pushing harder than I would if I was to run that distance on my own as a pure training run.
It’s something that we need to talk about more, because the trend of signing up for many races throughout the year as “training” or “fun” runs can actually contribute to overall burnout and fatigue. I’m 100% guilty of it too. Exhibit A: In my first 16 months of running ultras, I “raced” EIGHT 50km races and one 50 miler, not to mention multiple smaller races along the way. I got to the point where I was no longer enjoying myself, dreaded start lines, and didn’t have any desire to push hard at all – I was tired, mentally and physically burnt out, and I didn’t even know it.
Since then, my solution has been to sign up for less races. For example, this year I’ve got exactly three races on the calendar. Orcas Island 50k on February 6, which was a “C” race for me on the road to my “B” race of the year, the Gorge 100k on April 2. I still properly tapered and recovered from Orcas 50k, but I also ran it fairly conservatively knowing that it wasn’t a major goal race for me. My one and only “A” race this year will be Fat Dog 120miler on August 12 AND 13, but in between April 2 and August 12 I plan on doing nothing but fun, easy, long adventures, focusing on time-on feet. My coach Gary Robbins has been a huge help in this regard, and at the beginning of the year as we map out my schedule he insists that I rank my races by priority, and then adjust my expectations and training accordingly. It’s a much more balanced approach to running and racing, and its meant that when I actually do toe the line of an A-goal race, I feel refreshed and ready to push myself.
The other part to the overtraining piece is that we often don’t give enough care and intention to our tapering and recovery periods. It can be very frustrating to go from high volume training weeks to almost zero activity for the two or three weeks leading up to the race (hello, taper tantrums), and even more frustrating to give our bodies the recovery time they deserve following our actual race – especially if we have a good race that leaves us feeling powerful and epic and ready to conquer the world (anyone else get that or is it just me?). This feeling of invincibility is usually followed by feeling 90 years old, as every bone and muscle in my body hurts for a solid week or two, but by the time three weeks has passed after a big race I start to ask myself existential running questions like: “Am I even a runner? I can’t remember the last time I ran!”; “Could I even run around the block right now?”; and the worst one: “Why am I winded walking up one flight of stairs??”. It can be tempting to jump the gun on recovery to stop the constant and exhausting internal diatribe, even while knowing that this will only end up biting us in the rear further down the road.
For the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering from the Gorge 100k, and feeling surprisingly (and dangerously) good post-race, I’ve done my best to keep my runs to nothing over an hour or so in length, no more than a couple times a week at an easy, social pace. It’s a good excuse to catch up with friends and make outings more about the catch-up than the exercise. With the gorgeous weather we’ve been having its very difficult to stay away from the mountains, so my solution has been to call up a buddy, grab cameras and gear, and make a fun and SUPER mellow adventure out of the day… with much stopping for photo fun and ridiculous antics. I always find the buddy system is good for holding me accountable, so don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage and schedule social time as religiously as you normally do long runs.
The biggest key, for me, is to always remember why we do this crazy sport in the first place. Sure, it’s pretty satisfying to sign up for a crazy-long race and train our asses off for it, but I see races more as bookmarks and progress indicators along a much bigger journey of exploration and lifelong adventure. We are so incredibly lucky to have our health and fitness and the ability to access incredible parts of the world with our own two legs, and we can’t and shouldn’t take that for granted. So balance the work with play, and, most importantly – Have fun out there!
This past weekend, I ran Rainshadow Running’s Gorge 100km race in the Columbia River Gorge for the second year in a row. Having also run the 50k course in 2014, it’s safe to say that this race is now definitely one of my favourites (that, or I just keep going back for more pain!). It features miles and miles of countless waterfalls, moss-laden trails, and flowy singletrack – but make no mistake, this race is no gimme. With a sneaky 12,000 feet of cumulative gain built into 100km of rolling hills, and two steep climbs bookmarking the beginning and end of the out-and-back course, as well as off-camber footing and rocky terrain that makes it hard to run with a normal gait, it’s easy to see why this race is now a Western States qualifier. It’s rugged, tough, and gorgeous. Sign me up.
I’m extremely lucky to have a wonderful group of insanely talented girlfriends who also willingly register for crazy races like this one, and we turned the weekend into an unconventional girls’ roadtrip. We caravanned down to Oregon in two cars with 6 girls and 2 boyfriends in tow, stopping almost every 30 minutes along the way for pee breaks and food, as one does the day before a big race. I have an amazing talent for cramming in all of the water I should have been drinking in the week before the race into the day before, much to my bladder’s chagrin. Side note: on the return trip, we stopped exactly once the whole way back… just a slight difference from the nervous hydration happening pre-race.
We stayed at McMenamin’s at Edgefield, which is a quirky old school that has now been converted into a creaky older hotel. Bathrooms are communal, and our rooms were on the 3rd floor – no elevators. My first thought upon checking in was “Oh boy, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to get back to my room after the race”. Also, after carrying my bags up three flights of stairs, I was winded. Not a good sign the night before running 100km. Clearly, pre-race jitters had kicked in.
After eating an entire pizza by myself and washing it down with a courage-boosting glass of wine, I tucked myself into bed at 10:30pm and set my alarm for 4:15am. Compared to last year, when I had to be up at 1:30am for the much earlier 3am start time, this felt downright luxurious.
Our fearless racers, consisting of Alicia, Tory, Tara (Barry) and Tara (Holland) and myself, managed to get ourselves ready and out the door to the race almost on schedule, but when we got to the start line parking lot at Benson State Park 15 minutes later, we were told that the parking lot was full and we would have to park a mile down the highway and walk back to the start line. Uh oh. This was a good lesson in leaving time for the unexpected, as we had planned our morning so that timing would work only if everything went according to plan. Suddenly we found ourselves hauling drop bags and gear along the highway back to the start line in a panic, checking in with minutes to spare, and still pinning bibs on as the race began. I only hoped this wasn’t an omen for the day to come.
Tara Holland and I had previously decided to run the first half of the race together so that she could pace herself and not go out too fast, as it was her first time doing 100km (and double her longest distance ever!). Because of the scramble to get to the start line we found ourselves quite far back in the pack, and shuffled along in a conga line with the main pack for the first kilometre until we hit the big climb and the pack started to space out a bit. As I watched people jostle for position or sprint uphill in order to move ahead exactly 10 feet from where they were, I had to laugh at the futility of their efforts. In a race this long, the less effort you expend the better, especially at the beginning when it doesn’t do you any good. One of the golden rules I swear by, which coach Gary Robbins has taught me well, is to “start slow, finish fast”. I can say with certainty that every single one of those runners who went out too hard in the beginning in an effort to prove that they could indeed run uphill (good for you, that looks sustainable!), ended up struggling to finish, if they finished at all. Pacing, in these races, IS the race.
I’ve discovered that one of the reasons I like long distances so much is that I’m good at finding a consistent pace that I can hold for hours on end (aka Hilary the human metronome), and I felt fantastic as we cruised through the first section, blew through the first aid station without needing to stop, and settled into a comfortable rhythm as the KM’s ticked away. I felt so lucky to be able to share what ended up amounting to ~80% of the race with Tara H, who is both a badass (and crazy fast!!) runner, but is also a straight up wonderful woman who I have so much admiration for. We were actually asked once during the race if we were sisters, and I replied “I wish!!”. It really felt like we were. We were a seamless team for much of the day, and took turns pushing and pulling the pace as needed. It always amazes me how life brings us exactly what we need in that moment, and I’m so grateful to count Tara as a friend and future adventure buddy.
The first half of the race flew by with little fanfare, other than the unseasonable humidity which had everyone drenched mere hours into the race, and early hotspots on my feet that slowly turned into blisters over the course of the race. I decided not to change shoes when I had the opportunity to at the first pass through Cascade Locks Aid Station (35km in), because a) the blisters weren’t bad enough to affect my gait, and b) the Saucony Nomad TR’s that I started the race in were my best option given all of my foot issues leading up to the race, and I wasn’t willing to give them up yet. Shoutout to the Wy’east Wolfpack, led by rockstar leader Yassine Diboun, who made this aid station the highlight of my day with their amazing energy and enthusiasm. You guys rock!
So as far as nutrition goes, I realized early on that my stomach was not happy, and I had a lot of trouble eating the food I’d packed in between aid stations due to nausea. Because of that, I started spending more time at each aid to make sure I got at least a couple of hundred calories in when I could. Coke, chips, fruit and pickles became my lifesavers, along with some avocado at 65km that tasted like heaven, and gallons of electrolytes to compensate for my extreme sweating. What a cocktail.
Tara and I (along with Alicia, who we met up with along the 35-50k section before she ended up eventually dropping out of the race due to pacing and nutrition issues), hit the turnaround point at exactly 6 hours 30 minutes, which was perfectly on pace for my goal of a sub 14 hour finish, with a bit of a buffer built in. I should add that I ran the entire race without a watch because I worried that I would become fixated on my time goals and screw up my pacing – and really, there’s not much I can change about the outcome by obsessing over each minute that passes for 13 entire hours, other than to drive myself crazy. Before the race, I had decided that I would run by feel and by heart, and be at peace with whatever outcome that gave me at the end of the day. It’s a hard thing to do, especially since I had last year’s performance to compare myself to – hello, déjà vu – but I do feel that for the most part (until the last hour when I decided to just go for it and see how fast I could finish), I managed to stick to it.
Because of the out-and-back course, another thing I love about this race is seeing everyone else either coming or going along the way. So many high fives and hugs!! Tara Barry passed us flying as she headed to her eventual 10th place finish in 12:15, and rowdy high fives with Tory kept us all in good spirits.
Gary had warned me not to start racing until after the 50km mark, and having run a conservative first half of the race, I felt ready to pick it up a notch. I waved goodbye to Tara and Alicia, and started to tackle the uphill climb out of Wyeth AS with more energy. It felt great to open up the legs here, and I enjoyed the solitude of flying along in the woods by myself. The beauty of races this long is that they give you plenty of time to ponder life and be super intellectual, while still gasping for breath and thinking about which tree you are going to pee behind next.
The biggest takeaway from my hours of musing (I’ll condense it for you, you’re welcome), is that my motivation for running these long, physically and mentally demanding races has to be rooted firmly in the right place. When I’m out there alone for hours, battling highs and lows and convincing myself to maintain forward momentum, the only person that I am truly competing with is myself. The reason that I love ultra running so dearly is because I am continually learning more about who I am and what I’m capable of each time I challenge myself to do something that I’m not totally sure I can do. I’m aware that not every challenge will be successful, and there will come a day when I don’t reach the finish line – and that’s ok too, because it’ll also teach me something new about myself. This journey is pushing me, redefining my limits, and forcing me to be completely honest and vulnerable with myself and with others. It’s an incredible feeling, to strip everything external away and just run with my heart, and to be completely present in that moment and that moment only.
I hit Cascade Locks AS for the second time feeling strong, except for the growing blisters on my left foot that I couldn’t quite ignore. I’d been planning to stop here and change shoes, but as soon as I did I realized that that was no longer an option. My backup pair have a narrow toebox, and I knew as soon as I swapped shoes that this was going to make the blisters worse – so I put my Nomads right back on again. Sigh. As I was dealing with my shoes, Tara came flying into the AS. Crazy how close our pace was all day, even when we weren’t running together! I waited for her to grab some food and switch shoes, and then we took off together, reunited again! I was extremely thankful to have her company when we hit the 2 mile road section following Yeon AS at around 75km. It was HOT, exposed and asphalt, and we were shuffling along on a road that ran parallel to the highway. Not exactly inspiring stuff. It was a low point for both of us, but we got through it with a combination of running and walking and shuffling, until we finally hit the relative cool of the trails again. It took a few minutes to get our energy back after that soul-sucking section, but we slowly regained momentum and started picking racers off by the handful. The beauty of starting out slowly is that you get to feel really strong when you are passing runners late in the game – and we realized after the race that we didn’t get passed once for the entire second half of the race. I’d call that successful pacing!
Right around when this picture was taken, I started to get the urge to really pick up my pace. I left Tara for what turned out to be the last time that day, and started to push myself. I glanced at the time for only the second time that day as I hit the final aid station (just before the last big climb starts), realizing that I needed to have a strong finish if I wanted to be decisively under 14 hours. This thought gave me new energy, and I felt strong as I power climbed the final hill, passing runner after runner as I went. I stopped counting after a while, but later Tara and I figured out that I passed 10 girls in that last 10km alone, moving from 23 to 13th place. The power of pacing, seriously. Apparently I passed runners who I knew as I went, but I was so focused that I have zero memory of it at all.
I hit the top of the climb completely euphoric, knowing that all that stood between me and the finish line was around 5km of downhill, concrete switchbacks and a flat kilometre around the lake at Benson State Park (it’s a torturous km, as you can see and hear the finish line at that point but yet you are moving away from it). I’ve previously had my quads totally cramp up on me at this exact downhill section, but on this day I felt invincible. I literally threw myself down the mountain, whooping and hollering out loud and feeling giddy with glee and abandon. I splashed through creeks recklessly, no longer worrying about keeping my feet dry to protect my blisters. I’m pretty sure that tourists hiking up to the waterfalls thought I was batshit crazy, but I didn’t care. I was having an absolute blast, and felt no pain. In what felt like only minutes later, I skidded into the finish line at 13 hours and 27 minutes, 13th female overall, and almost 45 minutes faster than last year’s 14:12.
Tara finished almost exactly 5 minutes after me – again, our paces were ridiculously close. What an incredible debut for her first 100km race!
Aside from some very glamorous puking in the parking lot as we were heading back to the hotel (who knew sprinting downhill with a stomach full of nothing but Coke and pickles was a bad idea at the end of a race?! Sorry, stomach), the rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful.
I do have to admit though – one of my first thoughts when crossing the finishing line was “Gee, if this was Fat Dog 120miler, I’d barely be halfway done right now”…😳. A frightening thought, that, but thank god I don’t have to worry about that until August. For now, you’ll find me happily glued to my couch.
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, I was nervously getting ready to run my first 100km race, the Gorge 100km in the stunning Columbia River Gorge.
This year at this time, I am also nervously getting ready to run this same 100km race for the second time. I guess that first part hasn’t changed.
Exactly what has changed can be found more in the time that lies between the two dates. Last year’s race was my longest distance to date, and I had one goal: finish. This year, having had great races at both the Gorge 100km and Fat Dog 70miler last year, I find myself toeing the start line for this still-daunting distance again this Saturday, with a new goal: finish faster than last year. Last year I finished in 14:12:34. This year, my goal is sub 14 hours. Doesn’t matter if its only one minute less than 14 hours, but that’s what a good day will look like for me this year.
The 2016 edition of this race features an incredibly deep field for both men and women, as the top 2 men and women will once again be gifted with an elusive “golden ticket” to the venerable granddaddy of ultras, Western States. For the rest of us more lowly mortals, the 2016 edition of this race now counts as a qualifier for the WS lottery…which is the reason that I am back to run this course for the third year in a row (the first year being the 50k version, back when I thought people who ran 100kms in one stretch were completely mental. They still are, come to think of it).
For many reasons, this year’s race poses new challenges to be overcome.
1) Training, or the lack thereof. I enrolled in part time courses at BCIT this past semester – which, on top of working full time and balancing schooling, running, life and relationships, singing and performing regularly in a high-level choir, has proved to be a bit challenging as far as fitting in long runs are concerned. There were many weekends over the past few months where I couldn’t string together 4 hours in a row for a long run, so I would end up bookending my day with a few hours early in the morning, followed by a few more hours late at night (then repeat the next day), which grew exhausting and uninspiring over time. Contrary to the beautiful pictures of adventures that I tend to favour on my Instagram account, I compensate for those amazing moments in time with many boring slogs around my neighbourhood’s industrial style “trails”, punctuated by hill repeats in the rain and dark.
2) Ongoing shoe problems. I have had difficulty finding a pair of shoes that I can run more than 2 hours in for the past six months, and have cycled through just about every pair and style that I can get my hands on in an effort to find something that doesn’t result in burning arch pain and the inability to walk properly for a few hours after a long run. One month ago, I got my hands on a pair of Saucony Nomads, and ran my last week of long runs in them with reasonable success and minimal pain. Because of that, they are looking like my best option right now, so I’ll be toeing the line in a pair and style of shoes that I have very little experience with. Suffice to say that I will be sending backup pairs to every aid station along the course just in case these ones tank.
3) Pacers no longer allowed. I was fortunate to have benefitted from incredibly strong pacing by my friend Brice at both of my 100km+ races last year, and it certainly makes a huge difference to have that injection of fresh energy after running (and talking to myself) for 10+ hours on my own. However, in order to make Gorge 100km a Western States qualifier, Rainshadow Running eliminated pacers from this year’s race – a decision I actually agree with, as it levels the playing field, especially for the elites vying for the Western States entries. However, it will mark the first 100km distance race that I’ve tackled completely on my own, which is certainly a terrifying thought. It’s just me competing with me, and when the going gets tough I’m the only one who’ll be there to dig myself out of holes and keep one foot moving in front of the other until I cross the finish line. Basically, it’s time for me to put on my big girl ultra pants.
Here’s a couple of things that are working well, just to balance out the first list.
1) Nutrition is dialled in. Over the past year, I’ve worked really hard with coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter to dial in my nutrition, and I think I’ve got it sorted. My primary calorie sources for a race this distance are dates, nut butters, avocado, and then coca-cola and chips at the aid stations. The coke provides simple sugars, and the chips reset the palette so that I don’t end up with sugar overload. This combination has worked well for me over the last year, and I’m going to stick with it for this race as well.
2) Mental space. Having a few long distance races under my belt has done wonders for my confidence, and I’m excited to see how adding in this new challenge of no pacers will affect my day. I consider one of my strengths to be my ability to stay positive for hours on end, so this race will test that theory out. Looking forward to seeing how my experiences over the past year play into this year’s race.
3) More sleep. Last year, I took the early race start to give myself as much time to finish as possible, which meant that I set my alarm for 1:30am, and began racing at the ungodly hour of 3am. I’m not sure why that is even legal, it seems downright inhumane. This year’s race time has moved, and it will now begin at the relatively sane hour of 6am, which means that I will hopefully not have to get up before 4:30am or so… practically luxurious. Crossing my fingers that having a few hours more sleep will make a difference to my energy levels during the day.
4) Girls roadtrip. I’m very lucky to count some incredibly badass (and crazy fast) women as my friends, and we are turning this weekend into a girls getaway (although running a 100km race is not the traditional format for one of those, I know). I’m always amazed by the incredible people that I have met through the trail running community and now count as friends, and these ladies are a big part of that. Excited to see them all kick butt (including mine!) on Saturday. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a special shoutout to Miss Tara Holland, who is tackling this race as her first 100km. It’s double any distance she’s ever raced before, and she only found out a few weeks ago that she was going to be running it at all, when she made it off the waitlist at the last minute. Her primary reason for signing up in the first place? It sounded like a fun getaway, and she wanted to come hangout with the gang. I love having friends as crazy as me. 🙂
The one challenge I haven’t mentioned yet – and it’s probably the biggest one that I worry about – is that because I ran this race last year, I now have a benchmark to compete against. In my head, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s no longer good enough to just finish. I know that I’ll be fighting to avoid looking at the time or worry about my pace and whether I am on track to reach my sub-14 hour goal. Also, because the course is an out-and-back, you get to see where everyone is as they reach the halfway mark and turn around… which can also mess with running my own race, because it’s hard not to compare where I am versus where others are on the course. Times like this are when I really appreciate having all of Gary’s insight and knowledge, and he has helped me to work through my fears during the last few weeks and focus on running my own race – and avoid trying to run someone else’s race instead. It may sound simple, but when you have that many hours to think about nothing but what time you’ll be finishing at (mostly so that I can sit down and eat and sleep), worrying about my placement or time could end up sending me into a negative spiral that completely derails my race. I was never very good at math to begin with, and my math during races especially sucks at the best of times. I’ve had races where I’ve calculated that at my current pace, I am days away from finishing, rather than the 5 or 10km I actually have left. Oops.
Primary goal #1: get out there, have a great day, and focus on being thankful that I am healthy and fit enough to run these races in the first place.
Stay tuned to find out how it all works out! The adventure continues.
I have a love/hate relationship with my running shoes. On the one hand, I love them because they’ve kept me going when the going gets tough, and I log many, many miles in my trusty sneakers as I explore treacherous, slippery trails, wade through creeks, and scramble over boulder fields. I develop a bond with my shoes – we’re a team, and we’re working together. My garage is a graveyard of retired shoes, and the holes in the uppers and bald, tread-less soles speak to the love we once shared together. I have a great deal of difficulty parting with these sad, decrepit shoes once they’ve exceeded their shelf life, despite their failing form and decidedly unsavoury aromas. They have all shared in my victories and defeats, and they’ve been my biggest supporters – some more than others – in this crazy journey I’m on.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, my shoes are very important to me. I’ve had a few fleeting periods of time over the past few years where my shoes did everything right, and I religiously stuck with them over and over again, hoping they would be my 4ever solemates.
Last year, those shoes were the Pearl Izumi N2’s. I went through four consecutive pairs during the bulk of last year’s training, they never once needed breaking in or caused me so much as a single hotspot, and I wore them with great success at both of my longest races of 2015, the Gorge 100km and Fat Dog 70 Miler.
Approximately 40 miles into Fat Dog, however, I started getting some pretty serious pain through my arches… not a good thing. Much of this can no doubt be chalked up to my body’s reluctance to run for +16 hours straight (shocker), but I nonetheless flagged the issue as a potential problem. Months later and still wearing a (new but otherwise identical) version of the same shoe, I kept noticing that this burning pain would return after only a few hours on the trails. Not good. Was it my shoes, or some sort of stress fracture, or a combo of the above? I wasn’t sure, but the first thing that had to be revisited was my footwear. I went back to the drawing board, and for the past few months I’ve been cycling through shoes trying to find a pair that works. And for the record: Yes, this does mean that I’m currently ignoring the possibility of a more serious problem like stress fractures, but allow me to live in ignorance for just a little while longer until I’ve satisfied myself on the shoe front – aka, that it’s me, not you.
I’ve learned two things through this exhaustive testing process (that kind of feels like speed dating, oddly enough… swipe left, swipe right, move on):
• It’s expensive. Shoes are not cheap, and this is an especially painful truth when you are cycling through a pair a month trying to find “the ones”.
• It can also be literally painful, as the trial and error phase invariably involves fun experiments like trying out shoes without rock plates (a whole lotta ouch), or wearing sizing that feels fine until you try to run downhill after your feet swell up slightly (my toenails will never be the same). Also, apparently my left foot is slightly bigger than my right foot? At least, that’s what the blister patterns tell me…
Anyways. I am now four months into my shoe experimentation, and have so far tested out the Inov-8 270’s (the lack of a rockplate just didn’t cut it for my wussy feet), the Salomon Speedcross 3’s (great tread on technical terrain, but sizing is a bit weird and they are either too big or slightly too small), and I’m currently dabbling with the Pearl Izumi N1’s (yes I know, almost full circle, but there are subtle differences in the design which give me cause for optimism). All I want is to find the shoe that has everything – the perfect cushioning to go far, the perfect tread to grip slippery roots and forest service roads alike, and the perfect combination of light materials and durable support. Essentially, I want one shoe that does it all. Is that too much to ask?? 🙂
I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet. My experiences so far tell me that every shoe sacrifices some aspects in the interest of others, and that I need to prioritize what I want out of my shoes. However, I’m not quite willing to concede defeat yet.
Looking for opinions! Is there one shoe that “does it all” for you, or should I be content with a shoe that does “some things very well and some things well enough”? What shoes are you loving right now?
I first learned about Lifestraw through my friend and fellow trailrunner, Aran. His company, Eartheasy, happens to be the North American distributor of their water filtration products. He introduced me to the Lifestraw filter, which has since become a favourite companion of mine while training and trail running in remote backcountry areas.
Last year, I remember when Aran went to Kenya as part of some project with Lifestraw. I trolled his photos when he came back (I swear I’m not a stalker though, sorry Aran!), and was amazed by the experience he had. Fast forward to this year, and never in a million years could I have dreamed that I would be hopping on a plane to Kenya as part of the team, heading there to work on a project that I was only vaguely familiar with.
So how exactly did I end up on a plane to Africa with less than a month’s notice, you might ask?
Well, good question. Lifestraw (owned by parent company Vestergaard), ran a contest on social media as part of their Follow The Liters campaign, asking users to submit a photo featuring a Lifestraw product with a little blurb about why they liked Lifestraw and what a trip to Africa might mean to them. I’ll admit that I really didn’t pay much attention at the time to the contest and was only vaguely aware of what the prize was, but I managed to get my act together and submit an entry at the eleventh hour. When Lifestraw contacted me to let me know that I was a finalist, I had to do some quick research on what that meant exactly. Even then, the tantalizing thought of a trip to Africa seemed so laughably beyond reach that I didn’t consider it much of a possibility. Plus, the other finalists were all strong contenders, and my track record with winning contests is historically underwhelming.
To make a very long week of frantic voting short, my friends and family rallied around me and voted like crazy, and to my absolute shock I found myself one of the winning finalists and heading to Western Kenya in less than a month. Even then it seemed implausible, with many hurdles to be overcome – time off at work, visas, vaccinations… everything had to line up very quickly or this trip was a no go.
I know you are waiting in suspense to hear how that all turned out, so I’ll let you off the hook and tell you that it did in fact all come together (spoiler, I know). I found myself hopping a flight to Nairobi on October 29 with fellow contest winners (and, coincidentally, Vancouverites) Brice, Solana and Adam – and Aran, in a sort of full-circle twist of fate.
I’ve never been to Africa before, so as soon as we left Paris via Kenya Airways I was in uncharted territory. We landed late at night in Nairobi after two very long flights and 20 hours of travel time (apparently Kenya is really, really far away from Vancouver!), and our first introduction to the country upon leaving the terminal was a total airport lockdown. Turns out the president was passing through, and his security detail shut the entire airport and surrounding roads down for around 45 minutes as a security precaution.
As we sat in the car moving precisely 0km/hour listening to a cheerful local radio station, I noticed that everyone seemed so relaxed, despite the fact that we were stuck in a sea of parked cars. Prior to our flight, Aran had told me that the best expression he could think of to describe the African mentality is “TIA” – it stands for “this is Africa”. In other words, just relax and go with the flow, because nothing in Africa goes quite according to plan anyways. This seemed like a pretty good introduction to it.
Mr. President safely removed from the area, we finally made it to our airport hotel in time for a late, bleary-eyed dinner and a few hours of sleep before we flew out again early the next morning on a domestic flight to Kisumu, in the western province of Kenya. Our final destination from there was the town of Kakamega, which would be our home base for the next few whirlwind days. Most of the Vestergaard team and partners, who are based all over the world, converged on the Nairobi domestic airport to catch the short flight to Kisumu. As I looked around the dingy room, listening to a myriad of accents and languages and watching people greet their colleagues and friends, the enormity of the project hit me. Here were several dozen people all about to hop on a plane to go to a remote corner of Kenya, and I got to be part of this! How did that even happen?!
I think that’s the first time I was actually struck by what an incredible opportunity this trip was. It was so much more than just going to Africa – because really, anyone can book a ticket (seriously, what’s stopping you? Do it now! 😉 ). To work on a project with an impact like this, however, and to travel to remote areas that are far removed from the usual tourist experience, is quite another thing altogether.
We arrived in Kisumu without incident, and a fleet (literally, probably 20 cars and drivers) arrived to transport us to the Golf Hotel in Kakamega, an hour’s drive away. As we settled into a long conga line of SUV’s and snaked our way along the occasionally paved “highway”, I got my first real look at the local culture. To state the obvious, the contrast was evident immediately. The main road, generously littered with potholes and lacking any apparent road markings, was lined with ramshackle shops and houses. Their rusted tin roofs matched the reddish hue of the dirt walls and ground around them, and this was punctuated only by the vibrant colours of incongruous advertisements for Coca-Cola, nestled among clothes drying in the humid sunshine. The air was pungent with the smell of animal shit, dust and food, and it hung sticky in the air. Definitely not in Kansas anymore.
We arrived at the Golf Hotel, a fairly clean and reasonably modern building which had been essentially taken over for the campaign, and were warmly greeted by the Vestergaard team, led by tour de force leader and managing director Alison Hill. The entire team put an incredible amount of energy into preparing for this campaign, and their hard work was clearly evident all week as the campaign (not to mention the daunting task of coordinating and deploying over 100 people) unfolded without any apparent hitches.
As we checked in, we were each given a personalized itinerary that laid out our very jam-packed schedule for the next 7 days, and my head started spinning with how much we were going to cram into each day. My priority number one, being slightly sensitive of stomach and prone to these sorts of things at the best of times: please, please, please, don’t get the dreaded “runs”. Seriously, that would be a real bummer.
Our first night in Kakamega happened to be Halloween, and we had been given strict instructions prior to the trip that packing a costume was a must. By this point we were all running on almost no sleep and I could feel the jet lag setting in, but how often do you get the chance to have a costumed dance party in rural Kenya with a bunch of grim reapers and superheroes?? I’m not sure how I could possibly top a Halloween party like this in the future, but it was certainly a surreal experience and a great start to a week packed with adventure.
The following morning, we were scheduled to head out on an early morning hike to the summit of the Kakamega rainforest before spending the day getting trained on how to assemble and install the Lifestraw community filters. I didn’t expect many people to show up after the Halloween merriment of the night before, but an impressive group managed to rally – and it was totally worth the lack of sleep.
The Kakamega Forest is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest, and I couldn’t believe how GREEN everything was… not quite what I expected from a sub-Saharan African country. This country seemed to be defying my expectations at every turn, and I found myself blown away by the raw, unspoiled beauty of the landscape, and the warm welcome from the locals we’d met so far.
Part One: Follow the Liters
The next morning was the official launch of the 2015 Follow the Liters program, and we had been warned to expect much fanfare from both local officials eager to make speeches, and the school’s drama classes, who were delighted to have a captive audience to entertain.
I can’t really put into words exactly how special this day was to me, but I can say that it stands out as one of the best and most memorable days of my life so far. From the minute we got to the school and got swarmed by 1100+ excited kids eager to touch the “Mzungus” (white people/ all foreigners in general), my heart responded to these precocious kids, with their barefeet, toothy grins, and guileless happiness. We danced until I thought I was going to pass out in the heat, trying to mimic unsuccessfully the natural rhythm that they seemed to instinctively groove to, and ran and played with reckless abandon, caught up in the kids’ infectious enthusiasm and joy.
I visited a total of 10 schools and 7,500 kids with my team over the next several days, and it was a whirlwind of emotion and energy, punctuated by tiny, precious moments. Overall, during the seven day campaign, we reached an astonishing 203,000 kids in 330 schools with clean and safe water.
This accomplishment is even more staggering, given that the main challenge with many of these schools is that they are very remote. And by remote, I mean the middle of freaking-nowhere. There are barely roads, if you can even call them that, and good luck finding them if you don’t know where you are going. The Lifestraw team worked tirelessly for months leading up to the one week campaign to identify the schools that most urgently need clean water, and to arrange for logistics such as getting schools on board with the program and making sure that they understand what is expected of them as far as the maintenance and care of the filters is concerned. The sheer task of getting 2,500 filters delivered to these rural areas is a herculean feat, in and of itself. As I mentioned before, it takes an exceptional team to pull something like this off, and I was so impressed by everyone involved with the project. They truly managed to make the impossible possible with their hard work and dedication.
My team consisted of five of the local Kenyan team members, all of whom immediately made me feel like family, as well as two Lifestraw employees from India and Myanmar… and then there was whitey mcwhitey me (seriously, freckles are the closest I ever get to a tan). When our small team showed up at the first school on the second day, I jumped out of the car, expecting the same exuberant greeting that we had received at the launch school the day before. It didn’t happen, and I noticed that the kids were simply staring at me wide-eyed with much pointing, screaming, and nervous laughter. The headmaster rushed over to greet us, explaining that the children had never seen “Mzungus” before – hence the hesitant reaction. He suggested that I go stand in the middle of the school field so that the kids could come say hi. I did, and the bravest of the kids started to approach me, clearly itching to reach out and touch me, but too shy to do so.
I made eye contact with one and reached out to shake his hand. “Jambo”, I offered, recalling the only word of Swahili that came to mind at the moment. He looked at my outstretched hand and very tentatively stretched his fingers out, meeting mine in a limp, furtive handshake before quickly pulling his hand back. A big grin spread across his face and he started giggling, clearly delighted that he had survived the encounter. Amidst the admiration of his peers for his feat of bravery, a few of the other kids jostled in front of me to shake my hand, and suddenly it felt like a switch was flipped. In the span of two seconds, I went from having to encourage one little boy to shake my hand, to dealing with 800 screaming, enthusiastic children, all of whom were reaching out to grab my hands, arms, hair – whatever was within reach. It was the strangest feeling to be the centre of that sort of smothering attention, but I tried my best to let as many kids as I could possibly reach touch me – and they loved it. The smiles got bigger as I started teaching them to high-five and give me a thumbs up, and by the time I pulled out my camera to take a few photos with them, they were totally enthralled.
Enthralled is perhaps too calm a word, however. Exuberant might be slightly more accurate, but even that doesn’t capture the palpable, electric energy that I felt standing in the middle of this sea of kids. Eventually I felt the need to come up for fresh air, and decided to take off running across the field. I waded through kids and broke away without explanation, waiting to see what they would do. There was a split second pause while they tried to figure out what the hell the crazy Mzungu was doing, and then chaos broke out as they all ran after me, shrieking with delight.
This became my signature move at each subsequent school we visited, where very similar scenarios played out each time, and my teammates got a total kick out of watching me running away from/with the kids when I needed a break from the overwhelming attention. I discovered pretty quickly once I started running that our cotton campaign t-shirts and the impressive humidity that built before the monsoon rains hit each afternoon were a pretty potent combination. After a few hours I was usually soaked with sweat and the combined germs of a few thousand runny nosed kids, and I didn’t even care. It was an exhilarating experience to have and to be part of, and I wanted to soak up every second of it, even if that meant literally.
Our routine at each school was to arrive, spend a few minutes saying hi to the kids and letting them go crazy, and then meet with the Headmaster briefly before gathering all of the children for a classroom session on how the filters worked. During this training it worked best for me to make myself scarce so that the kids wouldn’t spend the whole time rubber necking to stare at me. These brief moments of quiet gave me a chance to look around the schools, and I was struck each time by just how little these kids and families have. Their uniforms, so bright and cheerful upon first glance, were painstakingly mended and patched. For every smiling, healthy looking child, there was one with scarring, burns or other health issues, and I highly doubt that they have ready access to a doctor or treatment. Simple injuries in our antibiotic, antiseptic world are life-threatening ones there – a sobering thought that brought tears to my eyes more than once. Water, which is probably the most basic necessity of life, carries very different connotations in these small villages. Disease laden and often hard to access, it reminded me of how much we have and take for granted, and how much of an impact these filters will make in their lives.
Despite all of this – and this is what hit me like a ton of bricks over and over again– they were truly happy. Happy in a way that our materialistic, privileged world couldn’t begin to grasp. Happy because they had that day and that moment and they were thankful for it and content to simply enjoy it, and they in turn share that joy with those around them. The sense of community that we experienced was genuine, and their lives are rich because of it. Our first-world sensibilities have long been bombarded by picture after picture of sad, hungry children, because that is what seems to inspire our pity and charity. I realized in those moments that these pictures and that overall portrait of what poverty looks like, at least in the areas that I visited, are false advertising. These families are poor, yes, but they don’t need a bunch of crusading missionaries to swoop in and “save” them – they need enabling and support so that they have the tools to build a better life and break the cycle of sickness and poverty.
Enter Vestergaard. This family-owned company has been in the business of improving health and quality of life for people around the globe since 1957, with their biggest ventures being the development of insecticidal bed nets that have dramatically helped in the fight against malaria, and, more recently, their foray into water filtration technology, which began in 2005 because they saw such a blatant need for something as simple as clean, uncontaminated water.
The problem is massive. Globally, 1.8 billion people have to use a source of drinking water that is faecally contaminated. At schools, 2.5 million kids miss class each day due to a water-related illness, and 3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases. If we can address this issue and break the cycle, it will have a truly profound impact on developing countries. The beauty of Lifestraw’s program Follow the Liters is that it is funded entirely by each purchase of a Lifestraw product – talk about a sustainable business model with a philosophy that consumers can get behind. (Don’t have a Lifestraw yet? Here you go, go get one). 😉
As the program has expanded over the past two years in western Kenya, they have worked to establish a team of locals to support and follow up with the schools and families that now have these filters. To me, this philosophy is so refreshing. They are supporting local economic growth in areas with high unemployment rates and creating sustainable changes that will have a long-reaching ripple effect. They’ve done this by engaging with governments, donors, and ultimately individual consumers, educating them to understand the problem and become part of the solution.
Our time in the schools flew by far too quickly, and before I knew it we were heading to a farewell dinner before we embarked on the second, more touristy part of our trip. The highlight of this evening was definitely a slideshow that had been thoughtfully and hilariously put together to thank all of the contest winners for our contributions to the campaign. We were awarded mock awards, mostly based on ridiculous stories from our individual experiences at the schools. I was deemed “Most likely to start a Kenyan schoolchild cult”, which seemed pretty fair, if the number of kids hanging off of my legs and arms at any given time were any indication.
Leaving Kakamega and the entire Lifestraw team was incredibly tough. It’s amazing how quickly bonds form, and I truly didn’t want to say goodbye to the amazing people I was fortunate to have met and worked with. We all left as slightly different people than we were when we arrived a few short days earlier, each of us impacted in some way by our interactions with the kids. I’m pretty convinced they gave me much more than I gave them, and I am eternally grateful for it.
Part 2: The Safari Experience
The next few days of our trip were designed to give us more of the typical tourist experience, which was certainly a contrast to the first half of the trip. Instead of flying back to Nairobi, the plan was for all of the contest winners, several of the photographers from the trip, and a few of the Lifestraw team to drive the approximately 12 hour trek back to the city in order to get a better sense of what the rest of the country looked like. I really enjoyed the roadtrip style journey, and as we bumped and jostled along the roads in our safari van, we passed tea plantations, herds of zebras grazing peacefully, and Kenyan athletes training at speeds that didn’t even look human. We bought roadside sugar cane, three different types of passion fruit, and honey that was probably harvested 100 feet from the road, and happily munched on our treats as the geography rapidly changed from rainforest to the dry, dusty plains of the famous Rift Valley.
Our destination on the first night was the Lake Nakuru lodge, which was perched in the middle of one of Kenya’s famous national parks. As we drove through the park, we were treated to our first safari experience – lions, giraffes and rhinos, oh my! I’ve never seen most of those animals in a zoo, let alone in a wild environment like this, and it was pretty incredible. We watched zebras graze, a pride of lions on the hunt about five feet away from our vans, giraffes stretched their legs leisurely as we gawked, and impalas and water buffalos coexisted peacefully while we tried to soak it all in.
As I mentioned earlier, there was an entire contingent of Vancouverites that ended up winning this contest (it truly wasn’t planned, I swear!), and it was fun being able to travel and share these memories with such a great crew. One of these amazing people is my good friend Brice Ferré – who, aside from being a badass trail runner, is an incredible professional photographer with a knack for capturing the perfect moment on camera. His photos from our safari do it justice in a way that my pitiful iPhone couldn’t hope to compete with. Enjoy!
The staff at the lodge were very attentive and welcoming, but I soon noticed that the place seemed very quiet – a crying shame, for a place that beautiful, perched in the middle of so much amazing wildlife. I asked our driver, Eric, about it, and he mentioned that the tourism industry has been suffering recently, as people are afraid to travel to Kenya in light of several well publicized terrorist incidents over the past few years. I can understand why this reaction occurs, and media sensationalism of the attacks doesn’t help assuage fears, but I also find it to be quite tragic – tourism is clearly a massive part of the economy in much of Kenya, and terrorism happens all over the world whether or not we try to hide from it or not. If I could bring back one message from Kenya for anyone thinking about visiting, my answer would be to go for it! We never had any issues, and in fact we felt that everyone we met went out of their way to make us feel welcome and safe. I’ve been in many developed countries in the world where I felt considerably less welcome and decidedly less safe.
From Nakuru, we continued to meander towards our final destination. The plan for our last complete day in Kenya was to hike up to the top of Mt. Longonot, a volcanic crater that held court over the otherwise flat bottom of the Rift Valley. Our group, which was primarily made up of trail runners and athletes, was clearly excited by the prospect of some proper exercise, and we power hiked up to the ridge of the crater with enthusiasm that was only slightly tempered by the altitude (the summit of the crater was almost 2800 meters above sea level), and the heat. Because we were faster than anticipated (ha!), our guide suggested that we run/hike around the rim of the crater as well, a suggestion that most of the group eagerly accepted. I’m so glad we did, because this ended up being an unexpected highlight of the trip for me. The trail around the crater was a single-track rollercoaster of dusty, eroded volcanic rock, and it was crazy fun barrelling up and down the trail with abandon. A little bit of African trail therapy before the long trip home!
Our last night of the trip was spent at the Sopa Lodge at Lake Naivasha, and it was about as opposite an experience from the beginning of our trip as you could find. Our rooms were actually a series of cottages (I called them Hobbit homes) nestled among towering acacia trees, overlooking a pool and large grassy field where zebras and water buffalo grazed while monkeys swung through the trees. Seriously, I’m not making this up – it was that picturesque. I don’t know that I’ve ever stayed at a nicer place in my life, and the deluxe buffet meals were topped only by the presence of giraffes strolling by the windows while we sipped cocktails after dinner. You even needed a security detail at night to go outside, because the hippos came up from the lake and hung out on the lawns after dark. After one look at the hippos (ugly bastards, they are), I happily agreed to the escort. Getting eaten by a hippo is not really on my bucket list right now.
I could have spent two weeks at Lake Naivasha happily, although I’m not sure that my bank account would have agreed with me. We all certainly appreciated the effort that Vestergaard put into ensuring that we had a wonderful time during the entire trip, and we really did have the time of our lives. Every detail was seamlessly planned and executed, and we just had to show up and go along for the ride. I can’t say thank you enough to the entire company for providing us with the trip. I love contests! 😉
I made a point of getting up early enough on our last morning to watch the sun rise. We had been going nonstop since our arrival in Kenya, and I really enjoyed the peacefulness of watching the sun slowly paint the trees in hues of pink and gold, listening to the chatter of monkeys and the chirping of birds. Little moments like this one formed some of my very favourite memories from the entire trip – funny how that works.
Our final excursion before heading to the airport was a morning boat ride around the lake, which is renowned for its hippos and the wide variety of birdlife that hang out in the swampy trees bordering the lake. As we putt-putted around the lake in search of hippos, warm sun on our faces and wind in our hair, I never wanted the moment to end.
As we drove into Nairobi, willing the time to slow down so that we could stay just a little bit longer, I was struck by the contrast of the city versus the rural countryside that we spent most of our time in. Everywhere you turned there were walls, gated compounds with armed guards staring vigilantly at all passerby, and security cameras lining the roads, looking for signs of trouble. Because of the conflict with Somalia and the resulting terrorist activities in Nairobi itself, the city was clearly on high alert. To get into any building required going through metal detectors, all bags were scanned as a matter of routine, and the vehicles were checked thoroughly for possible bombs. It made me sad that they were forced to employ all of these measures because of a few hateful men, and also grateful that I don’t live in a country where we need to take these precautions. This realization was only a few days before the bombings in Paris occurred, but even then I recognized that the world was changing and would continue to change in response to threats like this. We can’t live in fear, but at the same time it was pretty obvious that this city has lost its naiveté altogether.
Several equally long flights later, we arrived home safe and sound – a little sleep deprived, but having lived a lifetime of experiences and adventure in 10 short days. As luck would have it, I finally got the gastrointestinal hell that I had feared would derail my packed itinerary, and I spent the next week enjoying the effects of that. A shitty end, pardon the pun, to an incredible trip, but as they say – timing is everything.
If you want to see more of what we were up to, check out this great slideshow that Lifestraw put together after the campaign!