Timing is Everything: My Whirlwind Week in Kenya

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.

The lifestraw in action. Photo credit: Jamie Douglas
The lifestraw in action. Photo credit: Jamie Douglas

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.

Desperate times lead to creative measures...
Desperate times lead to creative measures…

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.

And off we go, with some minor concerns about the safety of our luggage...
And off we go, with some minor concerns about the safety of our luggage…

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.

Welcome to the neighbourhood
Welcome to the neighbourhood

A local shop.
A local shop.

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.

The grounds of our hotel - SO GREEN!
The grounds of our hotel – SO GREEN!

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 early birds at the summit. Thanks to Jess Dailly for the photo.
The early birds at the summit. Thanks to Jess Dailly for the photo.

Enjoying the view. Thanks to Adam Ciuk for the photo!
Enjoying the view. Photo credit: Adam Ciuk’s selfie stick

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.

Steam rising off the road leading into the rainforest. Photo credit: Brice Ferre
Steam rising off the road leading into the rainforest. Photo credit: Brice Ferre

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.

One of several presentations.
One of several exuberant presentations.

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.

Dance party! Photo by Aran Seaman
Dance party! Photo by Aran Seaman

Taking a break from the chaos. I can't get over how green everything is! Photo credit to Aran Seaman
Taking a break from the chaos. I can’t get over how green everything is! Photo credit to Aran Seaman

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.

Part of our team, with a Lifestraw community filter.
Part of our team, with a Lifestraw community filter.

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.

Part of my team teaching the kids at one of the schools how to use the community filters.
Teaching the kids at one of the schools how to use the community filters.

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.

My welcoming committee.
My welcoming committee.

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.

Surrounded. Photo credit to Brice Ferre
Surrounded. Photo credit to Brice Ferre

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.

It's a race! Photo credit to Brice Ferre
It’s a race! Photo credit to Brice Ferre

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.

After I overheatd while running, one of the girls produced a newspaper to fan me and cool me down (so that I would run again). Very resourceful!
After I overheated while running, one of the girls produced a newspaper to fan me and cool me down (so that I would run again). Very resourceful!

I turned around while running and got this shot of the kids streaming sfter me. So.many.kids.
I turned around while running and got this shot of the kids streaming after me. So.many.kids.

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.

Water jugs at the ready, waiting for the kids to fetch water from the river.
Water jugs at the ready, waiting for the kids to fetch water from the river.

Very impressed by these girls jump rope abilities!
Very impressed by these girls’ jump rope abilities!

Boston, one of my teammates, showing off his skills.
Not to be outdone…Boston, one of my teammates, showing off his skills.

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.

Can you feel the love?
Can you feel the love?

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.

You would never know that this water was originally brown and came from a dank, smelly river. Photo credit: Eugenia Martin
You would never know that this water was originally brown and came from a dank, smelly river. Photo credit: Eugenia Martin

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.

Monsoon clouds rolling in as the students learn about the Lifestraw filters.
Monsoon clouds rolling in as the students learn about the Lifestraw filters.

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.

Some of the hilarious and precocious kids we met.
Some of the hilarious and precocious kids we met.

Mugging for the camera
Mugging for the camera

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.

Too cool for school.
Too cool for school.

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.

A tea plantation worker we met along the way. Photo credit to Brice Ferre
A tea plantation worker we met along the way. Photo credit to Brice Ferre


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.

Our very awesome road trip and Safari van 😎
Our very awesome road trip crew, dubbed “team blue balls”. See below for our inspiration. Photo credit to Aran Seaman’s impossibly long arms.

The inspiration behind Team Blue Balls. Photo credit: Brice Ferre
The inspiration behind Team Blue Balls. No explanation necessary. Photo credit: Brice Ferre

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.

The safari dream team! Photo credit and fish eye view courtesy of Adam Ciuk
The safari dream team! Photo credit and fish eye view courtesy of Adam Ciuk

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!

On top of the world! Photo credit: Adam Ciuk
On top of the world! Photo credit: Adam Ciuk

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.

New friends.
New friends.

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! 😉

All is calm.
All is calm.

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.

Early mornings with the early birds. Photo credit: Brice Ferre
Early mornings with the early birds. Photo credit: Brice Ferre

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.

Scott found a creative way to use his new Lifestraw Steel - right before he fell into the lake.
Scott found a creative way to use his new Lifestraw Steel – right before he fell into the lake.

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!


Start slow, finish fast: a lesson in pacing

This past Saturday, August 15th, marked the longest ultramarathon race that I have run to date, the Fat Dog 70Mile (~112km) race, held in beautiful Manning Park. With 4,055 metres of elevation gain and 4,800 metres of elevation loss, this course is both incredibly challenging and scenic, with the majority of the elevation gain occurring in the last 33km of the race.

I put this race on my calendar as my goal race for 2015 over 8 months ago, and I have been steadily working towards it ever since. It might sound counterintuitive, but I often treat races as training runs or simply as fun excuses to travel with friends – ie. I don’t often push myself into “race” mode, preferring instead to just “get ‘er done”. However, I knew that I wanted this race to be different. I wanted to do well, and I was willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone to do so.

In the final week before the race, I spoke extensively with coach Gary Robbins about the course and how to approach it. Because so much of the descent terrain falls near the beginning of the race (20km of downhill between KM 20 and 40 alone!), I knew that the key to the race was going to be pacing myself so that I didn’t go out too hard and blow out my quads early on. Trust me, that is easier said than done. When an entire race field takes off at a good clip down what looks like a flowy, downhill single track, my basic instincts start begging me to bomb down the slopes as well…knocking off 20 easy kilometres of descent must be a good thing, right?

However, if I’ve learned one thing in the year and a half that I’ve been with Ridgeline Athletics, it’s that Gary usually knows what he’s talking about. Ok fine, he always knows what he’s talking about (happy, Gary??). I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best to listen to him, and so for this race I was bound and determined to stick to “the plan”. Go slower than what feels painfully slow through the long downhill section, start to think about picking up the pace slightly once I make it through Cascade Aid Station (AS) at KM 46ish, but focus on saving my legs for the meat and potatoes of the race: the final and incredibly intimidating 32ishkm Skyline section of Fat Dog. With brutal climb after climb and punishing descents on tired legs, this section can reduce racers to a literal crawl. Average times through this section for the 70 mile race can range from 4.5 hours to 10 hours, and the thought of having jelly legs through the biggest climbs of the whole race totally terrified me.

Race weekend arrived, and Brice, my pacer/crew/driver extraordinaire and I set up shop at Coldspring campsite early Friday afternoon, just down the road from the finish line at Lightning Lakes. All seemed good – the weather was a bit humid but not that bad, high 20’s, with blue skies and some wispy clouds. Once we set up our campsite, we headed up to the top of Blackwell Peak to scope out the start line (my slightly-paranoid-self wanted to make sure that we knew where we were going for the start ahead of time, rather than finding out at 6am on race morning that we weren’t sure where to go). We arrived at the Heather trail junction without issues, and were treated to beautiful, sweeping vistas. It was chillier up there than I expected it to be, and with darker clouds moving in courtesy of a stiff wind, we grabbed our jackets and went for a shakeout stroll down the Heather trail. Not even 10 minutes down the trail, it became apparent that the weather was changing rapidly, and big fat raindrops soon punctuated our retreat to the parking lot. As we got back into the car, the storm hit. Thunder crashed around us, lightning forked through the sky, illuminating ridges as it sought the ground, and hail the size of chickpeas started to crash down around us.

During our escape down the mountain, cocooned in a dry, warm car as the weather wailed around us, all I could think about was the 120 mile racers, who were 6 hours into their race and no doubt right in the middle of the storm. (Horror stories that emerged from these poor, brave souls later confirmed that this was indeed the case, and their race became more a battle of avoiding hypothermia than conquering distance. I have so much respect for everyone who fought through this weather… whether you made it to the finish line or listened to your body and ended your race early, you are all incredibly strong athletes and winners in my books!).

Suffice to say that my night before the race began was not exactly restful. Our tent had flooded during the storm, so after dumping out the water pooling inside of it and making it “sort of” waterproof with the aid of glorified garbage bags, I tossed and turned my way through the night, feeling that at any second the howling winds would just pick our tent up and send it flying.

Through all of this chaotic weather, I kept clinging to the belief that when I woke up at 5:15am the next morning, there would be sunshine and birds chirping merrily at me. Sadly, the only bone that Mother Nature threw me on Saturday morning was no immediate rain as we stumbled around the campsite making coffee and sorting gear… but the storm showed no signs of having run its course as we set off to begin my very long day.

"The viewpoint"
What a view.

The summit of Blackwell Peak, which had appeared so inviting the day before, was now shrouded in dark, damp clouds. The car thermometer read 3 degrees Celsius, and I shivered in my short shorts and puffy jacket as I checked in, triple checked gear, and dashed to the outhouse for my third nervous pee in a row.

Trying to stay warm at the start. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy
Trying to stay warm at the start. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy

Not quite ready for this whole running all day thing, but sureee. Photo credit to Alley Vause
Fake it till ya make it. Photo credit to Alley Vause

As the race started I drifted into the back third of the pack, consciously staying back and reminding myself that I wasn’t going to get caught up with the fasties out front and risk sabotaging the rest of my race by going out too hard. Easier said than done, watching them all bound down the trails and out of sight. I soon fell into a conga line with my awesome friend Dennis and we chatted our way through the first hour or so, the front of the race long out of sight and mind. I eventually said goodbye to him as our paces began to differ, and shortly afterwards another good friend of mine, Pascal Gray caught up to me and decided to hang out for a while. We fell into an easy routine that lasted for the next 40km or so, and the company helped me ignore the miserable rain and wind that refused to let up on us. At Nicomen Lake Aid Station, the volunteers were cooking up bacon in a skillet (seriously??!! My mind was blown!), and this bacon became my lifesaver repeatedly as the race went on. I actually think it was some of the best food I have ever tasted. MMMmm bacon.

Pascal enjoying the gorgeous trails.
Pascal enjoying the gorgeous trails.

This section is full of some of the most gorgeous, flowy singletrack that I have run in a long time, and the rain only added to the lush rainforest atmosphere. By this point I had forgotten that we were racing completely, and I was just enjoying a beautiful day on the trails. We soon started to pass runners who were racing the 120 mile distance, and I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. They had been on their feet for 25+ hours by this point, and exhaustion and the weather had clearly taken its toll. We stopped to chat with a few of them as we went (running into our friends Karl and Erin was a nice surprise), and I found myself struck repeatedly by the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of such obvious suffering. It certainly put my day and pain in perspective. We cruised through Cayuse Flats as a lean, mean, coke drinking machine, and arrived at Cascade AS (first major checkpoint and roughly 1/3 of the way through the race), having successfully managed to navigate the downhill kilometres without destroying our quads – first goal of the day accomplished!

Stoke factor = high!
Stoke factor = high!

As we hit Cascade, I tried to get in and out of the aid station as fast as possible, noticing that as soon as I stopped moving my body temperature dropped and I started to get cold. Pascal stayed a bit longer to change his shoes, but I knew he would catch me again without too much effort. This next section was mostly flat, with 3km of wet and miserable road running along Hwy 3 as we connected to the Skagit valley trails. I put my head down, gutted out the road section, which actually went by pretty quickly, and headed into 15km of rolling but overall mostly flat trails. Pascal caught up to me as predicted, and he looked really strong so I waved him on with a “see you soon”!

I putzed along through this section, feeling my legs getting sore and tired but also appreciating the soft, amazing trails that I was running on. The hardest part of this section was that I didn’t have my GPS watch on (due to conserving batteries), and I had no way of knowing when I was close to the next AS. That 15km felt like 30km, and I kept overestimating how fast I was going and thinking I should be hitting Shawatum at any minute. By the time I actually reached the aid station, I had convinced myself three or four times that I’d accidentally passed the turnoff without noticing and was going to be disqualified for missing a checkpoint. Dangerous downward spiral, and I’m glad I finally pulled into the AS before it got any worse! This was probably my darkest section of the race, actually, and I shuffled along feeling cranky, tired, and definitely hangry.

As I rolled into the out and back trail that led to Shawatum AS, Pascal was just heading out with his pacer Joe, who was joining him for the rest of the race. Those two guys are like peas in a pod, and it cracked me up to see them bouncing along and psyching each other up, true bromance style.

I came into the AS only to find out that I had missed seeing my crew (my bf Jer and Brice) by literally 15 seconds, as they had had to take off to get to Skyline AS to drop another pacer off. Given the difficult section I had just run, it would have been so nice to get some hugs and words of encouragement, but I gave myself a little pep talk, drank a couple of glasses of coke for good measure, and decided to just blitz my way through the next 15km to get to Skyline, where I knew for sure that they would be waiting for me.

I was very much on auto pilot through this whole next section, and managed to run almost all of it. I had been worried going into the race that this 30km section would be an issue for me, as the monotony of running on mostly flat terrain can make me less than enthusiastic about maintaining forward momentum after a while. I get bored, I slow down, and before you know it I’m strolling along without a care in the world. A road runner I am not. Also of note, the wear and tear from the repetitive motion can take a sneaky toll, and Skyline still loomed over me.

At least it stopped raining finally! Totally blown away by these trails.
At least it stopped raining finally! Totally blown away by these trails.

I stumbled into more friends (Andy and Alley!) at various points along this section. Saying hi to them and chatting as I went by helped me stay out of my head, and by the time I reached Skyline I was feeling alright. Not great, but alright. Jer and Brice were waiting for me (yeah!), and both got to work reloading my pack, feeding me, and helping me to restock water, food, and all of the mandatory nighttime gear required for the final and most challenging stretch of trail ahead.

A side note on the mandatory gear: before the race started, I was definitely guilty of bitching about how comprehensive (cough, overkill) the list was. A Gore-tex jacket, pants, two mid layer long sleeves, a toque and gloves, not to mention two headlamps and spare batteries for each?? Excessive for an August race, I thought. However, having just run through temperatures that felt like January, and seeing firsthand how quickly the weather in the mountains can change, I wasn’t complaining at all as we loaded up my pack. Okay, I might have mentioned how heavy it was once I strapped it back on, along with my 2L of water, but other than that I did realize how important it was to be prepared, especially as the “sun” went down.

All told I probably spent 20 minutes at Skyline AS changing my top (hurray for dry merino after being in my soaking wet tshirt and windbreaker all day), eating an eclectic mixture of smoothie, broth, and avocado, and spending 5 glorious minutes just sitting still in a camp chair. Heaven. My nutrition had been solid all day, and I was happily living off of a combination of avocado, dates, bacon, and coke (not all at once tho!). Luckily my gear was also working really well for me despite the rain, and I decided not to change out of my shorts into pants (purely lazy), and because I was having zero issues with my feet despite taking my shoes and socks for a swim all day, I didn’t even change those out. Cannot say enough good things about my Pearl Izumi N2’s – these shoes make my feet so happy! With a kiss goodbye to Jer and a promise to see him at the finish line sometime between 12am (very optimistic) and 1:30am (more likely), Brice and I took off from the AS. 81 km done, 32km to go.

Oh hey look, the sun came out....right before it set!
Oh hey look, the sun came out….right before it set!

Stopping, even for those few minutes, had made me stiffen up, and it took about 15 minutes of peg-legged walking to limber up again. Prior to race day I had never set foot on any of the Fat Dog course, but the one thing I kept hearing repeatedly was that this section of the race was make or break, and that it was to be feared and respected. Having spent all day mentally preparing myself to tackle this section, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs were feeling pretty solid as we powered up the gradual incline. Considering that the entire focus of my day had been to preserve legs for these climbs, I felt happy knowing that I’d paced myself well to get here. Now, here I was, in the final stretch of the longest race I’d ever done, and it was time to pick up the pace and bring it home. I started pushing up the hills, finding a rhythm with my hands on my quads, and Brice fell in behind me, following my lead. The beauty of having your training partner as a pacer means that I didn’t have to spell anything out for him – he perfectly read my moods and energy and just adapted around it. So good.

After around half an hour of climbing up a gradual incline that really wasn’t as fearsome as I’d been expecting, we rounded the corner and saw Joe and Pascal ahead of us. I hadn’t expected to see them again once they took off together earlier, so it was a nice to surprise to catch up. We said hi all around, and then I decided to be bold and pass them, even though I am definitely not as strong a climber as Pascal is. For whatever reason, I was feeling stronger and stronger as I went, and I couldn’t stop the momentum. We said goodbye to them, thinking we’d see them in a few minutes, and I allowed myself to be swept up in this crazy racing adrenaline that was taking over me. Faster, stronger, my pace kept picking up, and Brice yelled out at me: “this is faster than you ever go in training, and that isn’t accounting for the 85km you’ve already run today”!

I realized (without slowing down) that he was right…I am usually pretty laidback when I run and race, and when I hit my pain threshold I tend to back off and hover in a more comfortable range – however, not so today. I almost craved that pain, and I wanted to push myself harder than I ever had. I had spent over 9 months slowly building up my mileage to run this race, and I didn’t want to cross the finish line feeling like I gave it any less than my best. I found that sweet spot between almost redlining it and feeling like I needed to puke – but managing not to, hurray – and I kept myself there as we bombed up the mountain. Brice would occasionally go in front of me at a particularly steep part, but I mostly led the way, tunnel vision focus in place. I don’t remember much of this whole section, to be honest. I was more focussed than I’ve ever been in my life, barely spoke at all to Brice, and the two of us laboured in silence, passing headlamps in the dark as we went. I had absolutely no idea if these runners were racing the 120 mile, 70 mile, or 50 mile distances, and I gave up trying to keep track. I could only worry about my own race and do the best I could.

It kind of shocked me as we hit each downhill slope how fast I was able to navigate the steep terrain. I recognized that my body hurt, but the adrenaline far superseded the pain, and I bombed down each peak in silent exhilaration. This has to be the most extreme form of the runner’s high that I have ever experienced, and it was practically euphoric. I could feel myself continuing to pick up steam, and we hunted headlamps in the dark with singleminded focus. The only time I felt this resolve falter was on the final climb – the steepest and highest point in this section. Brice saw me flagging as my legs lost their juice, and he jumped in front of me to lead the way. I somehow managed to get through this final ascent without losing my momentum, and I knew that once I reached the top it was all downhill to the finish.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to my watch except to track my nutrition, but at this point I looked at where I was. I had 9km to go, and it was just before 11pm. That meant that if I could finish before midnight, I would have run a sub 17 hour race. Not in a million years did I dream that I could do that! I felt my adrenaline take hold again, and I looked at Brice: “It’s go time – let’s do this.”

He led the charge, and I just worried about staying right behind him. We flew over the winding, rock studded trails at what felt like breakneck speed- one toepick away from a faceplant, one rolled ankle away from crawling to the finish line. I threw caution to the wind, and I gave it everything I had. I could feel pain everywhere, but it didn’t seem to matter. The only thing that mattered was going as fast as I possibly could. My watch beeped out each passing kilometre as we descended towards the lake, and I yelled them out to Brice as we went. 9…8…7…6… I couldn’t believe how close we were to the finish line, but I couldn’t let myself think of it for fear of falling on my face. Breathe, focus, follow. Repeat.

Apparently we flew by friends of ours on this section and they called out to us as we went by, but I have zero recollection of it. I was that focused. We rounded the corner on the Rainbow Bridge, and I suddenly could see the finish line glittering at us from across Lightning Lakes. I felt myself welling up with emotion as we ran this final kilometre in to the finish, and as we ran the final 20 metres across the finish line, I was laughing hysterically with the sheer power of that moment. I had done it.

I crossed the finish line at 16 hours, 39 minutes and change, at 11:39pm. As I crossed I worried that Jer wouldn’t be there yet since I had told him midnight at the absolute earliest, but I turned around and he was sweeping me into a big hug (he had literally just parked and walked over to the finish line as I came through.. talk about timing).

After basking in the glow of not having to run any longer for a few minutes and saying hi to all of the crazy Fat Dog 120 miler finishers who lay lined up at the finish line in their sleeping bags, unable to move, I hobbled over to Heather, the amazing Race Director of this crazy, incredible race, and asked her how many of the 70 Mile women were in. I would have been totally thrilled with a top 10 finish, but I had absolutely no idea where I was in the field.

She consulted with the volunteer who was recording finishing times, and I’ll never forget her words. She grinned at me and said “no one else has come in. You are the first one. You’re the first female”.

I almost fell over. WHAT! And then I made her repeat herself, and double check just to be sure. I simply couldn’t believe that I had won the race. I had won!! It was an incredible moment. I was giggling and babbling and just couldn’t help myself. It is the first time I’ve ever placed in the top 3, let alone won, and it shocked me more than anyone else.

As the fatigue of the day hit me, I sat down in a chair, convinced I would never move again. Jer handed me a celebratory shot of whisky (best boyfriend ever!), and we hung out at the finish line cheering as other racers finished. The second place female, Katie Wadden, came in looking incredibly strong half an hour after I did (apparently I’d passed her in the dark and had no idea at all), and then a little while after that Pascal and Joe finished together. This was Pascal’s first race over 50km’s, and he crushed it!

Eventually Brice, Jer and I packed up at around 2am and headed to our campsite to catch some sleep before coming back to the start line at 10am to see the final finishers and the awards ceremony (which I still couldn’t believe I was part of!). There was no showers at the campsite, and I went to bed incubating all of my sweaty glory in layers of sweatpants and hoodies. Pretty sure there was a HAZMAT situation happening underneath all the layers, but I was too tired to care or find out.

Despite my exhaustion, I barely slept a wink. Every time I rolled over something hurt, I was hacking up a lung (apparently caused from how damp the air was all day, and 16+ hours of shallow breathing), and at around 4 am I got insanely hungry and had to get up and prowl through the truck for a bag of chips, which I happily mowed down and went back to bed. I was so tired and yet so happy and content, and I had a permagrin on my face which wasn’t going to be budged.

The boys finally got up at 8am, we struck camp (or rather, they did, and I hobbled around trying to bend over to pick things up and getting stuck halfway), and I managed to fit in a glorious shower before we headed to the finish line. Human again!

Watching the final finishers race the clock was quite an experience. Some of these racers were from the 70 mile distance and many were from the 120 mile distance, and they had been out there for anywhere from 27 hours to 48 hours. The amount of determination and drive it takes to simply put one foot in front of the other and not give up in the face of such challenging conditions blows my mind, and it really speaks to the heart of what this sport is all about. It requires digging incredibly deep and refusing to quit no matter what, knowing that no fancy prize or recognition awaits you at the end… far from it, in this niche sport with little glory and fame. The satisfaction has to come from pushing yourself to do something that you maybe thought you couldn’t, and then realizing that you are stronger than you ever knew you were. There is life-altering power in that realization, and that is worth more than any trinket or prize.

The awards ceremony. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy Photography
The awards ceremony. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy Photography

Permagrin, post shower. Photo credit to Brice Ferre
Permagrin, post shower. Photo credit to Brice Ferre

I cannot end this novel (I’m sorry, I know it’s a doozy!!) without extending my heartfelt thanks to each and every volunteer who was involved with this race. You braved the elements to make us hot soup and bacon in remote, frigid areas, you tirelessly worked for hours and days to take care of every detail of this race, and you did it all with a smile on your faces. I remain humbled and grateful by your generosity and selflessness. Heather and Peter, my congratulations on a job well done. You put on one hell of a race, and I have to say that this race is undoubtedly the best one I have ever done. Thank you.

My coaches Eric Carter and Gary Robbins of Ridgeline Athletics have also been a huge part of my journey for the past year and a half. I’ve become a smarter, stronger, and faster runner due to all of their knowledge and expertise, and the fact that I can even do these crazy distances now (uninjured!), and do them well, pretty much says it all. Thank you guys so much, you da best.

To my bf Jer and pacer, Brice: you were both incredible, and I cannot thank you enough for your support. I truly can’t put it into words. Jer, you have put up with me disappearing for hours each weekend on long training runs for months and endured my incessant talking about races and training runs and nutrition plans, and I was so happy that you were there to share this experience with me. Thank you babe. Brice, there is no one else I would rather have asked to pace me for that final and most difficult section of the race, and you did an exceptional job of it. I know for a fact that you played an enormous role in my success this weekend – and in all of the training leading up to it – and having you on my team has made me a stronger runner for it. Onwards we go!

To every Fat Dog, Chubby Puppy, and starter-but-not-finisher of these epic races (which were made more so by the wrath of Mother Nature that we battled unexpectedly but with universal tenacity): I tip my hat to you all.

Until next time, Fat Dog. I’ll be back for you again.

Uncharted Territory – my first 50 miler experience

On December 6, 2014, I ran my first 50 mile race, The North Face Endurance Challenge, held in the Marin headlands outside of San Francisco. Rolling, non-technical yet hilly terrain- this was my battleground.

Spoiler alert: I finished in 10:27:17, 4th female in my age group, and 40th female overall. Considering that my “A” goal was to finish, and my “B” goal was to finish in under 12 hours, I was pretty ecstatic with my results.

Despite finishing well under my time goal, which I am totally thrilled about, it was still a physically and emotionally exhausting day out there, and the feelings of accomplishment that accompanied me as I stumbled across the finish line, crying huge, wracking sobs that seemed to stem from my very core, will stay with me forever. There is something very overwhelming about finishing a distance that is scary as hell, knowing that I did it all by myself, by simply taking one step after another with my own two feet. For 80 kilometres (and change).

Several hours after the sun rose during the race, we were finally rewarded with a view
Several hours after the sun rose during the race, we were finally rewarded with a view

I would be remiss in noting, however, that my coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter are largely responsible for making sure that I not only got to the starting line in one piece, but that I finished that way as well. Their training and expertise have made me a smarter and better running this past year, and I can’t thank you guys enough for all of your patience and encouragement along the way. 🙂

There were several “big” factors that shaped my race day, for better or worse. The first one to show up was a spate of bad weather and storms that hit San Francisco the week of the race. To be honest, it didn’t feel much different from a mild Vancouver in October or November, but I was assured by local sources that it was in fact very atypical winter weather for the city. We clued into this when course changes started to appear the day before the race, with talk of washed out bridges and eroded trails dominating twitter conversations. I confess that I trolled weather forecasts for a while on the day before the race, selectively picking which ones to believe (sun and clouds was our best chance, and I ignored those that called for more rain).

Race day morning saw our little Vancouver crew of Shea, Melissa, Candice, Sarah and me all up at 3 am and stumbling into the kitchen to inhale instant coffee and food before heading to the starting line. Cue mistake number 1. I had been reading some recent research the week before the race that declared that for races longer than 50km, one should eat a “solid breakfast of about 800 calories” prior to the race… the theory was that even if you were a bit uncomfortable digesting the meal for the first hour or so, it still paid to have a solid meal in your system prior to living off of viscous calories for 10+ hours. Makes total sense right? In theory, at least.

As I was dissecting my race with Gary afterwards, it dawned on me (literally, as I was telling him what I’d done), what a terrible idea it was. I am not a big breakfast person. During my regular work weeks, I often just start my day with coffee, and don’t get around to eating breakfast before 10:30 am or so when I’ve properly woken up. On the weekends, I often eat a larabar on the way out the door to my runs, and rely on a big meal after my run to refuel instead. I’ve just learned that my gut is much happier that way. So. That said, back to race day. I ate two packets of instant oatmeal, mixed in with a bunch of yogurt, peanut butter, a banana, and washed down with a mug of instant coffee and honey. MMm. In all fairness, it wasn’t WHAT I ate that was the problem…that’s a fairly standard race morning meal for me. It was more the fact that I doubled the quantity of what I ate (and by the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, I felt slightly sick from how much I’d shoveled down). That, combined with the fact that it was 3 AM, six hours earlier than my normal breakfast hour, and I had the beginnings of trouble before I’d even started running.

As we headed to the race, big fat raindrops marked our progress, but by the time we were parked and walking up towards the start line, it was nothing but cloudy dry skies up above us. It was a great start to the race, and my spirits were buoyed by the thought of actually staying dry. I knew there were several other members of my coaching team racing, and there were a few flurries of pictures taken as we tried to find each other amidst hundreds of other runners. I made a couple of nervous trips to the porta potties before the race, noting that my stomach seemed out of sorts, but attributing it to race day nerves. As the gun went off and we watched the first wave of elite runners disappear at a FAST clip up the hill in front of us, I shuffled towards the start line to begin what promised to be a very long day. Due to the extensive course changes, we ran the first 5 miles of the course as a loop twice, and I soon settled in beside Shea and Melissa in a conga line of headlights that snaked up the hills as far as we could see. With the moon shining brightly above us, and little twinkling headlamps marking our progress, it was a serene way to start the day off, and I felt myself relaxing and staying very present in the moment.

So great to finally connect with these ladies in person! (This was actually after the race...hence the semi blank stares and crazed grins).
So great to finally connect with these ladies in person! (This was actually after the race…hence the semi blank stares and crazed grins).

Those 5 mile loops proved to be a great start, as the terrain was a mixture of runnable hills and descents, where we were knocking off consistent 5-6 minute kilometres. Before I knew it, we were through the second aid station, 16km under our belts, and headed towards the next leg of the race, a snaking hill that just kept climbing as far as the eye could see. Shea and Melissa were feeling strong and took off from the aid station in front of me, but by that point I was already having the beginnings of a gastrointestinal storm brewing, so I dialed my pace back a bit and waved them on. By the time I reached the top of the climb, however, I realized that the storm was not backing down. Once I started looking around for bathroom options, I realized a crucial problem with the Marin Headlands – you can see for miles. There is not one piece of scrubby brush big enough to duck behind, and I wasn’t quite desperate enough yet to just stop and go. Half an hour later I started to seriously consider the possibility, as my stomach issues raged on, and nausea prevented me getting any calories in at all. Thankfully there was an aid station coming up ahead, and I shuffled in with a painful gait and headed straight to the porta potty. Unfortunately, after standing there in agony for 5 minutes, I tuned into the fact that there was someone in there who umm, clearly sounded like they were in very rough shape and were probably not coming out anytime soon. I gave up on waiting and pulled out of the aid station, and luckily found a state park washroom at the next trailhead with no lineup at all. Thank god. Between the waiting and the stopping, I ended up being delayed by about 15 minutes, but that stop saved my day… for a while at least.

I finally headed out feeling quite a bit better, but still unable to get much down in the way of fuel. For the next few hours, my run was shaped by stomach cramping, multiple porta potty stops, and pathetic attempts to shove food in as I could. I should add that one of my fuelling strategies going into the race was to focus on whole foods, rather than gels and chews, which I had previously had problems with. With that in mind, I was hauling exactly 11 larabars with me, envisioning myself happily munching on one every hour, and supplementing with aid station snacks and the occasional chew. Well I pulled the first one out after two hours, a “carrot cake” flavoured bar, and realized why this plan wasn’t going to work. Those bars turned to a gummy paste in my mouth, and they just required too much work to try to eat, swallow, and digest. I just couldn’t do it. After four hours passed by and I’d managed exactly one bar, I realized that I was going to have to come up with a plan b. At the next aid station, I chugged about 7 cups of mountain dew in a row, and decided to go back to one of my old tried and true methods- liquid fuelling through pure sugar. It’s saved me before (Squamish 50km, 2014), and it saved me again. From that point on until the end of the race, I drank coke and mountain dew almost exclusively, and miraculously my stomach started to settle down. I got a second wind as the sugar hit my bloodstream, and I started to pick up the pace.

The biggest climb of the day was a series of tight switchbacks that snaked upwards for miles, and because of the rain the path had become a combination of ankle deep clay, with a brand new creek running down the middle of the trail. I tried to delicately avoid the mud for the first few minutes, but soon realized that I was fighting a losing battle and started tromping along, my feet squishing as I went. I caught a glimpse of some neon compression socks up ahead and realized that Shea and Melissa were only a few switchbacks ahead of me at this point. Buoyed by the thought of some company, I kept pushing my pace, and caught up to them near the top of the climb. Melissa was having a rough day but they were both hanging in there, and we yo-yo’d a bit as we wove our way along the hillside. The weather was looking clearer by that point, and we were treated to some stunning views of the California coastline. Truly, the scenery on this course is spectacular. I was riding my pop-fuelled wind, and ended up losing Shea and Melissa for a little while as I powered on, enjoying the fact that my stomach had finally stopped hating on me.

Photo credit to Nate Dunn
Photo credit to Nate Dunn

I had been warned before the race that there was a nasty little out and back section coming up, where runners who were heading out to the turnaround point were expected to yield to those coming back from it. As I came out of a wooded section of the trail onto a narrow goat path cut into the side of a steep hill, it was pretty obvious that I’d found the spot. If that didn’t give it away, the elite runners that were hurtling towards me at breakneck speed were another good indicator. I realized that in order to get off the trail, I had to scramble up the side of the hill and precariously wobble there while they flew by me. Not exactly a fast way to travel. Shea and Melissa had by this point caught up to me again, and we navigated this section with some frustration. I completely understand why the race directors made the passing rules as they did, especially since heading to the turnaround was a slight incline and slower going, but for those of us heading out to the turnaround it seemed that you could only run a few feet at a time before having to stop and scramble off the trail again for another runner – a definite buzzkill. I struggled keeping my momentum through these miles, and by the time we got to the turnaround I was trying to keep from crashing. Thankfully we picked up speed on our way back through that same section, but I felt for other runners who were now in our place. I could see the frustration and exhaustion on their faces, and of course by the time I came back through there were way more runners close behind me than there was when I was yielding to the elites on my way out.

Plenty of room for one-way traffic...two-way, not so much
Plenty of room for one-way traffic…two-way, not so much

We finally made it out of that section, which was definitely my least favourite part of the course, and I tried to keep up with Melissa as she flew down the hills with her signature downhill speed-demon skills. Once we hit Stinson beach and started climbing up again, however, I started to perk up again (thanks to another round of soda at the aid station), and I began to push my pace again.

One of my biggest dilemmas heading into the race had been what shoes to wear. I had recently switched to the Salomon Sense Pro’s, but I’d noticed that after 30km or so in them my arches and Achilles started to ache. I didn’t really have another pair of trail shoes to switch them out for, but as a backup plan I’d sent my Brooks Gels road shoes to the Cardiac aid station (mile 35.8), and I started to longingly dream of their cushioned soles. Funny, but just focusing on how good my feet were going to feel when I changed shoes helped me focus less on the pain my feet were currently in. Interesting little mental game. Just before I pulled into Cardiac, a few minutes in front of Shea and Melissa now after the climb, I ran into Sarah, who was just about to drop due to ongoing knee problems. Post-race MRI results revealed she’d made the right call, but I sure felt for her… it’s a tough call to make at any point during a race, but when you’ve run 60 km and are (only!) 20 km away from the finish line, it’s even harder.

I changed my shoes and socks completely at Cardiac, even sitting down on a chair and taking the time to dry everything off. My feet were pretty nasty and muddy after the wet terrain, and I can’t even describe how great it felt to start fresh again. I rarely take the time at an aid station to totally overhaul my footwear, and it was hands-down the best decision I made all race. Shea and Melissa came into the aid station as I was getting ready to head out, and after chatting with them for a couple minutes I took off, afraid to lose my energy wave.

Heading out from the aid station I suddenly knew were we were, and that the trail was going to spit us back down the muddy river/trail that we had climbed up earlier. My pace soon slowed to a crawl as I realized that in the hours since I’d come up the switchbacks, hundreds of other runners had also done so, leaving miles of ankle deep mud behind them. After watching the runners in front of me slip and fall all over the place, my mission became getting out of there in one piece. The slow, tip toe pace was more punishing to my quads than a flat out run would have been, and that section definitely trashed my legs more than I’d been expecting. Once I finally reached the end of that hill, however, I knew that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and I’d finish the damn race. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to count my chickens, and the tantalizing thought kept me going for the next few miles.
One of the problems with all of the course changes, I’d realized earlier, is that the locations of the aid stations were all slightly “off” where they should have been in the race… and no one seemed to know where they “actually” were. I’d also forgotten to change my watch settings before the race to extend the battery life, and so it died 6 hours into the race, leaving me guesstimating where I was on the course. I discovered during that time that my “mile counter” clock is really terrible. I can usually “feel” how many kilometres I’ve gone, but with miles I can’t even do the conversions, let alone have a sense for where I was in relation to aid stations. It certainly messed with my head a bit, and it’s a good reminder to me to be more organized before the race so that my “to-do” list actually gets done.

I hit the last (or so I thought) aid station with “5 miles to go”, as told by a helpful volunteer… and a quick look at my phone told me that I was only 9 hours and 15 minutes into the race. That was the first time I’d checked the actual time, and it kind of blew me away. I just assumed I was well over 10 or 11 hours at that point, and it definitely cheered me up. I wish I could say that I pushed the pace for the last few miles, but by that point I just tried to keep shuffling forward as best I could. My mind was willing, but the body was dealing with more GI problems, and it just wasn’t having any of it. Due to the course changes, this section also wasn’t just “5 miles to go”, it was more like 6.5… which, that far into the race, felt like a long fucking ways to go. I had a couple of really low points there, and the stomach cramping was getting worse by the minute as I finally headed down the last hill to the finish line.

All of a sudden, with about one mile to go, I started being overwhelmed by the fact that I was actually about to finish this race – a distance that two years ago I would have thought absolutely impossible, and one that even in the months before the race I had serious doubts about whether I could complete. I’m not a big finish line crier, but all of a sudden I felt this emotion welling up inside of me, and I started sobbing as I ran towards the sound of the crowds. Not just one single, glistening tear tracking down my cheek, mind you, but big, heaving, gasping sobs that turned my face bright red and puffy. Awesome. I couldn’t stop it if I tried- I was just purely overwhelmed.

Just a little bit muddy...and happy to be done
Just a little bit muddy…and happy to be done

Moments like that one remind me of why I run long distances. I was digging so deeply to run those last steps, and now seeing the finish line in front of me, I finally allowed myself to believe that I could do it. That I had done it. And with all of my challenges with GI issues and fuelling, it was still a great day out there, and I felt like really I belonged to this world of crazy ultra-runners, with their insatiable appetites and warm, easy camaraderie. One of my favourite parts of this sport is the fact that no matter how fast or slow a runner you might be, there is so much mutual respect among everyone participating – for no matter what your struggles are, or whether you finished in 6 hours or 16, everyone out there that day had to face their personal demons and battle through them, whatever that looked like to them. It’s a solo sport but a team environment, and I love the combination. And what’s more, at the end of those 50 miles, I knew there would be many more to come. And that I hadn’t found my limit yet. I can’t wait to keep looking.

I might have worked up an appetite.
I might have worked up an appetite.

Playing catch up…

So I am overdue for a post. And believe it or not, I’ve actually written three or four loooong posts in the last little while that just never made it live. Part of the reason was that I wrote just to get my feelings down in the moment, and once I’d done so, it seemed less important to actually post my musings publically.

However, I feel like that’s kind of why I have a blog. It’s a chance to write, to express what I’m feeling, and sometimes the only person that needs to see that post is me.

That said, it’s time for an update! Since the Squamish50km in August, I’ve been laying low dealing with some niggling health issues, but that is not to say that I haven’t still been busy. I’ve run the inaugural Skypilot race (beautiful course, and so technical), the Rubble Creek Classic (worth running just for the jaw dropping views and photo moments), the Oregon Coast 50k (another amazing Rainshadow Running event, which totally delivered on epic coastal beauty as promised), and most recently the Mountain Madness’ Hallows Eve marathon last weekend.

Running the Rubble Creek Classic with Alexa and Matt.  This race was so spectacular, I don't think I could have raced it if I tried... I was too caught up in the panoramic views.
Running the Rubble Creek Classic with Alexa and Matt. This race was so spectacular, I don’t think I could have raced it if I tried… I was too caught up in the panoramic views.

Aside from the above-noted spectacularly breathtaking scenery that all of them delivered on in spades, the other thing that all of these races have had in common is that I didn’t race any of them. As mentioned, I have dealt with some setbacks since Squamish50km, and basically the only way for me to move past them was to scale back my intensity for a while. This posed a slight problem since I had already committed to these events prior to this, and I still had many reasons for wanting to run them. After much consideration and back-and-forth conversations with Gary and Eric, I ended up still completing these races… as fun runs only. That was the bargain, and my end of it was making sure that I stuck to the deal and didn’t get swept up in race fever.

I didn’t really realize at the time how hard that would be to do, but the mental effects of holding back and letting go of my competitive side definitely took a toll. There were a couple of races in particular where there were many tears of frustration shed on the trails, and I finally had to let go of my pride and truly just enjoy these events as the incredible experiences they still were.

Loved the technical traverses that this race offered! Boulder scrambling is way too much fun.
Loved the technical traverses that this race offered! Boulder scrambling is way too much fun.

In hindsight, I’m not sure that it was the smartest thing for me to insist on doing these races, and it’s certainly been a learning experience for me. On one hand I’m not exactly worrying about “placing”, and technically it doesn’t really matter if I’m posting slower times than I should be… but at the same time I still underestimated the psychological effects of constantly curtailing my pace and never feeling like I “left it all out there” at the end of a race. I blame my Scottish side for not wanting to waste any registration fees, but I think I’ve also learned that there has to be give and take, and sometimes I could do with a little less stubbornness and a little more common sense. Lesson noted. Whether it is learned…we shall find out when the same dilemma presents itself again. 🙂

As for what is coming up next: the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile is approaching at terrifying speed (33 days, eek!), and then I will probably take much of December off before launching into training for the Gorge 100km in March. My goal for 2015 is to focus on quality versus quantity as far as racing goes, and I am beyond excited to be tackling longer distances and taking on new challenges.

That’s all I’ve got for now! More to come on the North Face 50 mile as I start freaking out, I’m sure. 🙂

Can't wait to see all of these views again...twice!!... at next year's Gorge 100km.
Can’t wait to see all of these views again…twice!!… at next year’s Gorge 100km.

Squamish 50km – Onwards and Upwards

It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” – George Sheehan

If I had to sum up everything that I love about ultra running and have learned in the last year, this might be it. When I began running long distances last year, it was with no expectations other than to finish what I started. And for most of the races that I’ve run this year, that goal has remained the same. Obviously as I complete more races (this last race marked my 7th 50km finish in the past year), I can relax a little bit and trust that I will indeed make it to the finish line – although I never take it for granted, as each race presents its own unique challenges that have to be overcome. Along the way, as my training has become formalized (aka I’m actually trying to stick to a plan), my times have naturally gotten faster. One cool way to measure this progress has been seeing how I stack up against friends in the trail running community.

However, while this presents a nice little indicator of how I’m doing, and a little bit of friendly competition on the trails can be a healthy means of challenging oneself, I’ve realized that the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is for me to beat me. The beauty of this sport is that success is so individual – for one person it might be setting a new course record, but for another it might simply be to cross the finish line before cutoff. The gamut is huge, but the glue that binds us all together is a mutual respect for each and every runner out there giving their absolute best, whatever that might be.

The lovely Candice Ridyard, out for a pre-race shakeout with our fancy new buffs ;)

Cue this year’s return to the race that started it all for me. While I obviously wanted to beat last year’s time, I refrained from having a specific time goal in mind beyond that. I wanted the race to have the same feeling that it did the year before, when I ran with my heart and not my head.

As I headed to the start line, with advice from Gary swirling around my head and butterflies nesting in my stomach, I made a conscious decision to just be present in the moment and enjoy the day for whatever it might bring. With this foremost in my mind, I started the race as instructed at a “slower than what feels slow” pace, letting my legs shake out and enjoying the company and chatter of those around me. So many friendly faces on such an early morning! I loved seeing everyone embarking on this grand adventure together. The single track trail that winds up to the first aid station naturally leads itself to a conga line, and I happily trotted along without feeling the urge to speed up or pass at all. I cruised into the first aid station feeling good and enjoying the company of Jay, a cop from Alberta running Squamish for the first time, and Adam Ciuk, who I’d met through the Squish orientation runs previously.

Adam and I settled into the first big climb of the day together, and moved up Galactic Scheisse at a comfortable “chatting pace”, holding each other accountable to stay slow and steady and not go out too hard too early. We finally topped out at the anticlimactic summit, and headed into the notoriously quad punishing downhill that follows, weaving our way down Upper Powersmart, IMBA, and into Fred’s. Adam and I had been trading leads through this section, but I hit the second aid station without wanting to spend more than a few seconds chugging coke, and after launching down Word of Mouth I didn’t see him again until the finish line. I met an awesome girl named Laura during this whole downhill section, and we yo-yo’d a bit before she took off on me right before Quest. Heading into Quest alone, I was feeling pretty good overall – pleased that I had managed to keep a controlled pace during the first (almost) half, and aside from minor burning in my quads (I defy anyone not to have at least a few twinges after running those sustained, technical downhill trails) and a queasy stomach that started rebuffing gels fairly early on, I felt like the day was going really well so far.

Heading into Quest.

I stopped for about 5 minutes in Quest to refill water, drink a bunch of coke, and down watermelon, which thankfully my stomach seemed to be tolerating much better than the gels and chews I was toting. After saying a quick hi to Jen Mullaly (cheering squad and photographer extraordinaire) and other awesome friends, I took off towards Garibaldi Way and the Climb Trail with lots of energy to spare. I started climbing, but soon noticed that my inner quads weren’t happy with me. Pretty soon, the warning twinges I was experiencing morphed into a full-on muscle cramp, and I literally hobbled to the side of the trail trying to dig my elbow into my leg to release the cramp. After a few minutes it subsided, and I limped along for a few minutes until my leg was fully functioning again, trying to figure out why I’d cramped. First of all, I never cramp. Ever. And generally speaking, climbs and I get along very well. I can usually just tuck my head and plug along with very little fuss. Which made this little quad-hating episode that much more unexpected.

I carried on a bit more tentatively, but found to my frustration that the cramping started to build again – this time in the other leg. #$(&#%! A 50/50 miler runner passed me as I was doubled over, and offered me salt pills (I almost gave him a sweaty hug for that, poor guy). I popped a couple and carried on, getting through the next 15km or so with a combination of running and hobbling as the cramps came and went. It was so frustrating, as I had been on top of hydration all day, pounding electrolytes and not pushing my pace too much. I’d like to say that I powered on and just ignored the pain, but I hate to admit that more energy than I would have liked went into cursing my cramping legs during that section.

I began breaking the race down by the climbs, since that seemed to be triggering my cramping (and all the while knowing that the Mountain of Phlegm still loomed over me). I hit Bonsai knowing that it had been my low point last year (I had dubbed it the “valley of death”, actually), and my saving grace this year was seeing a face up ahead that I recognized – Laura, my new friend from earlier in the race. I set her in my sights and just focused on slowly catching her, and before I knew it we were both topping out together at the tree line and Bonsai was behind me. Aha! I’d managed to get through that entire section without cramping, and I used that momentum to tick off some faster km’s on the “friendly” downhill that is Somewhere over There. Laura and I ran for a bit together, and then I said goodbye and carried on, determined to take full advantage of my legs finally working as they were supposed to. I popped out of the trails onto the forest service road that leads up to the last aid station, and made it about halfway up the gradual hill before my legs cried for mercy and I ground to an unimpressive walk. Sad but true. At this point I was just determined to get to the Mtn of Phlegm and get it behind me as quickly as possible, and every twinge in my quads filled me with “is this going to be a cramp?” terror.

I stopped at the last aid station briefly (the signs at this one were super awesome!) for more watermelon, and then took off before I became tempted to sit down and not get back up again. Side note – loved the cheering from the We Run Mas folks that were out here- huge pick me up! 🙂 As I headed into the meandering trails that lead to the last infamous climb, I focused on taking one step at a time. The cramping had gotten so bad that both legs would cramp at the same time, and I would be literally immobilized at the side of the trail cursing a blue streak until it subsided.

I had only seen a couple of other runners during the past couple of hours, but as I came around the corner heading into Endo, I spotted my good friends Shea and Melissa up ahead. My first thought was “uhh… mirage”?? Shea and Melissa have been consistently laying down ridiculously fast times this past year, and I assumed when I saw them take off at the beginning of the race (so long ago now), that our next meeting would be in the beer garden at the finish line. Apparently not so! As I got closer, I realized that Melissa looked pretty rough, and found out she was experiencing the same inner quad cramping as I was… also a first for her, too. I ran with the two of them for a few minutes (with Shea very gallantly braving my sweaty legs to work out a vicious cramp along the way), and then powered on ahead, determined to get the Mountain of Phlegm over with. As I moaned and groaned my way up the little-but-fierce hill, I followed the very distinctive sounds of a vuvuzela being manned with enthusiasm at the top. It was a much needed distraction, and I wasn’t surprised at all to see Solana at the top, alternating between taking photos and reaming on the vuvuzela.

Photo credit: Solana Klassen
Photo credit: Solana Klassen

From the top of the Mtn, I knew I was down to the last few km. My strategy: don’t think, just move. As soon as I hit the flat road, I managed to find a steady pace, and ticked off the home stretch without any major issues. I knew my parents were at the finish line (their first time at one of my trail races ever!), and having them, my better half, and my coaches all there waiting for me was huge incentive to finish strong. I stumbled across the finish line at 7:37:02, and subjected Gary to a very sweaty hug (sry Gary, but your fault for making the course so hard!).

Emotional finish.
Emotional finish.

Coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter
Coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter

Since the race, I’ve been doing a bit of research into muscle cramping. That, combined with an insightful debrief with Gary post-race, has helped me to realize that I still have many things to work out. For one thing, I need to come up with a plan B for days when my body is hating on gels. The fact that I only consumed one gel (plus probably two pounds of watermelon) over the whole day was quite simply not good enough – and calorie deprivation was probably one of the reasons that I began cramping. The humidity was also a big factor, and although I was drinking Heed electrolytes in my hand held bottle constantly, I didn’t start taking salt pills until after the cramping started (aka too late). I’m still not totally convinced that salt pills actually do anything to help cramping muscles based on the research I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll certainly be using them a bit more as I tinker with my hydration in the next few months. Can’t hurt to try!

I think the biggest thing that I took away from this year’s race was that even though I finished an hour and nine minutes faster than my “debut” last year, the course felt every bit as hard this time round. In hindsight, I realize I had been secretly hoping that all of my training and racing would make the course feel noticeably easier, but not so.

As I mentioned earlier on, the biggest thing I’ve learned about ultra running is that you battle yourself more than anything else. And even though getting faster is a nice side effect of training and experience, it’s going to feel just as difficult each and every time, because you are racing you. But the awesome flip side is that it doesn’t really matter how long it takes… the most important thing is to get out there and just do it.

Watermelon - nectar of the gods.  Photo credit: Jen Mullaly
Watermelon – nectar of the gods.
Photo credit: Jen Mullaly

Attitude of Gratitude – my one year ultra anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorge Waterfalls 50km – April 2014

This past weekend marked my first 50km trail race since November, and I approached it with a much different mentality from last year. 2013 was all about figuring out this whole long distance trail running business, and sorting out newbie issues like fueling, proper footwear, and dealing with chafage (I have the scars to prove it). However, three 50k races have taught me a couple of things at least, and one of them is that 2014 is going to be the year of not making the same mistakes twice!

I’ve been looking forward to this race for a while now… there’s really no better way to gauge how your training for a 50km is going than to run 50km (shocker, right?). Lots has changed for me lately too: I’m now getting coached by the dynamic duo known as Gary Robbins and Eric Carter, my training levels are ramping up overall and I’m finally kicking nagging injuries (hopefully for good!), and I just feel more prepared to tackle this year’s races now that I have a few more trail kms under my feet. I signed up for this race with my good friends Shea and Melissa, and together with the ever awesome Candice (aka CandyPants) who came along for the ride and moral support, we decided to make it a no-pressure race and road trip weekend. [Spoiler alert: we did, and it was pretty damn awesome].

Wet coast paradise.
Wet coast paradise.

This race – one of the Rainshadow Running series – is billed as one of the most beautiful courses on the west coast, and for the most part I would have to agree. It was a veritable rainforest paradise (made more convincing by the fact that it POURED the night before the race, and we battled bipolar weather during the race… starting with sun, then clouds, followed by rain, hail, wind, and then back to sunshine once we’d finished – of course). As the Pollyannas of our group liked to remind us, there’s nothing like a lot of rain to make the many waterfalls more awesome.

Our little posse got into Portland on Friday evening, and promptly made a beeline for Shea and Melissa’s favourite pub, which happened to be right down the street from our Air bnb apartment…convenient, that. Considering that Melissa booked our place, I would also venture to call it more than coincidence. 🙂

No complaints tho.. the food was delish! We had a great little meal and a couple of bevvies, (despite gluten free options on the menu, I played it safe and stuck with a quinoa and kale salad and a glass of white wine…no need to end up with the literal runs on my run). After settling in to our quirky and classic Portlandia apartment, we went for a quick spin around the block to stretch out our legs after the long drive, and headed to bed soon after. Friday night craziness, I tell ya.

Melissa's best angle!
Melissa’s best angle!


Saturday we were up bright and early, got ourselves to the start line, and were loaded onto school buses to be shuttled to the start line. The sun made an appearance to send us off, and all 250-ish runners trotted out of the gate feeling over-layered for the weather. Shea, Melissa and I started together, and we spent the first 5km or so stripping off jackets and finding our legs. Knowing that one of the two big climbs of the race was in the first 15km of the race, we purposefully took it slow and tried not to get caught up in the overall adrenaline of the crowd. It was hard not to, however, and much of the climb was very runnable… something that surprised me, and definitely made us push a bit more than we otherwise might have.

The trails were squishy single track that wound through lush forests with occasional glimpses of scenic mountainsides as we climbed, interspersed with pretty stunning traverses along mossy ridges that looked like they were populated by gnomes.


So there I was, running blithely along and watching the scenery more than my feet, I suddenly felt them fly out from under me. I was literally in the middle of calling out to Shea: “Wow, isn’t this beautifu—” when it happened, and the first thought that popped into my head was “well this is ironic”. It was one of those falls where there is nothing you can do to slow it down, and I just tried to go limp and pray for no breakage. I landed with a big thwump, crashing down onto my left kneecap and then banging up my hips, elbows, and other knee for good measure. My first thought was that I must have broken my knee – felt like everything rattled around a lot more than it’s designed to. However, after gingerly picking myself and my pride up and taking some tentative steps with no major pain, and conferring with Shea and Melissa, I decided to keep running and see what happened. At this point, Melissa was just getting stronger and stronger, and I had no idea if I’d even finish the race (my knee was already puffing up and pretty angry), so I waved the two speed demons on, and off they went. [Spoiler two: I could probably write a novel about S & M’s race, but for now let’s just say they came in together with a fantastic time of 6:31, and with one of the most memorable finishes ever!].

The rest of the race was fairly uneventful. I rolled my capri leg up so that I could monitor the swelling on my knee, and trucked along. Climbing felt great and I was pleased at how much energy I had – I ran most of the hills and definitely did most of my passing on them.

Watching the knee inflate...
Watching the knee inflate…

A note on fueling: I was trying to do this race on gels and chews only, and I have to say it worked pretty well. I had no major energy bonks, and aside from feeling hungry towards the end of the race, my stomach seemed to tolerate the gels reasonably well. The flat coke I chugged at the last aid station was a lifesaver, and definitely deserves a shout-out for my hill slaying. The downhill stuff was not so good, unfortunately, and a combination of feeling more cautious of the slippery terrain and dealing with a noticeable increase in pain had me slowing down way more than I should have had to. Ah well.

It’s funny. Every race I do ends up teaching me something that I shouldn’t try at home, and this was no exception. This time it was that I should pay more attention to my feet than to the scenery… or at the very least, don’t try to rubberneck and run at the same time. Despite the wrench that the fall threw into my plans, however, I was actually pretty proud of this race. It was good for me to have to deal with unexpected injuries in the middle of a race (thank you first aid training!), monitor it closely to make sure nothing was getting worse, and play to my strengths (hills) while protecting my knees on the downhill (aka gingerly walking them). I never took it for granted that I would finish the race, and instead took it aid station by aid station.

One note on the course: Just after the second aid station, there’s a 3 mile connecting section of road that runs parallel to a fairly busy hwy before the trail picks up again. It was a very long 3 miles. I’ll just leave it at that, but considering how remarkably beautiful the rest of the course is, I’d say my strategy for that section was to just suck it up and look forward to being on the trails again, while repeating the mantra “I am not a road runner. I hate roads.” over and over again.

Views like this one made it all worthwhile...
Views like this one made it all worthwhile…

The most challenging part of the course was definitely the last 12km or so. When we left the last aid station, I knew we were heading into the biggest climb of the race, which was immediately followed by a steep descent that pretty much spat you out at the finish line. In hindsight I would have loved to take more pictures of that section, as the course climbed in a series of steep switchbacks alongside three stunning waterfalls, but the only thing I kept thinking was that the more uphill we did, the more downhill would naturally follow it. (My powers of deductive reasoning are particularly impressive after 40km, I assure you!). I felt really strong on the big climb though, and continued to pick up speed as we went. We finally crested the trail, and the dreaded downhill kicked in and kicked my butt.

The trail had turned into a mini waterfall from all of the rain, and all of the speedy runners in front of me had helped create little mudslides that reduced my progress to an almost literal crawl. The same switchbacks that had featured so prominently in the climb now taunted me with their relentless downward pounding, but I could practically taste the gluten free pizza at the finish line, and I hobbled along as fast as I could. One last bridge crossing past waterfall #15 million, (give or take), and I was practically home free. The last stretch was a couple of flat kilometres, and I managed to pick off a few more runners and finish strong, where Candice was waiting for me at the finish line with a MUCH needed hug. 🙂

My official time was 6:51, third female in my age category, and a 6 minute PR from Baker Lake. Considering this course had quite a bit more elevation than Baker, and with the knee shenanigans, I’d call it a great finish for me, and one I’m proud of.

The last time I saw S&M during the race was leaving the first aid station and I had no idea how far they were in front of me, but it turns out they’d finished a solid 20 minutes before me. Yeah! We all shoveled post-race food and beers down- major kudos to the Rainshadow Running crew for truly first class aid stations and post-race celebrations, btw – and decided to head back to our apartment for some much needed showers. (Turns out Candypants got her own solid 30km trail adventure run in before we all finished, so I’d say our whole crew got an “A” for effort on Saturday!).

After showering and cleaning up we celebrated the day’s exciting events with some well-deserved burgers and bevvies, and I think I had one of the best sleeps of my life that night. One of the most underrated benefits of being an ultra-runner is the fact that you sleep like a baby. It’s so good.

Post-race knee.
Post-race knee.

This week has been all about ice, ibuprofen, and hot yoga. TGIF, and I’m soooo excited to get out on the trails for a little bit this weekend.

To all of my friends doing the Diez Vistas 50km tomorrow…better you than me! 😉

Taper Week Terrors

It’s funny – 90% of the time that I have ever spent at a Sports Rehab Clinic is during the week before a race… aka taper trouble time. The fact that running big races is still relatively new to me means that I am definitely above the average of my own statistic, as all but one of my physio appointments have been prompted by Taper week. This eureka moment only really occurred to me because my physio commented that most of the athletes she sees tend to do the.exact.same.thing. Funny, that.


It kind of surprised me that I wasn’t the only one who experiences random tweaking sensations during this pre-race timeframe of supposedly gentle recovery exercise and rest, but I guess it makes sense. When we aren’t frantically busy trying to cram scheduled workouts into days that already seem to fill up on their own, there’s more time to focus on niggly pains (both real and imagined). If given enough time and worrying, pretty quickly these minor pains that we happily ignore for months while training can suddenly grow into issues of epic proportions. Cue the last minute sports therapy appointments, which masquerade as a “somebody please fix me now, but don’t you dare tell me I can’t run my big race!” cry of desperation.

On Saturday, I’m running the Gorge 50km trail ultra-race in Portland, Oregon. It’s not the most technical race I’ve ever done, but it’s not the easiest either. Weather can play a big factor at this time of year in the mountains, and there are a couple of killer climbs at the beginning and end of the race that are designed to kick you when it hurts. And even though this race was planned with friends as a “let’s go have fun and take selfies in front of the millions of waterfalls that make this race famous and somehow run 50km in the process”, it’s still hard not to feel a bit of anxiety leading up to the race. Fun-run or not, 50km is still a long effing distance, and I can’t avoid the perpetual, mostly unsubstantiated fear of injury that lurks in the cobwebs of my mind before every big race.

Seriously, the amount of times that I’ve dreamed about falling flat on my face and breaking my nose (or ankle, or leg, or neck) on a suddenly looming root (or rock, or tree, or my shoelace)… You get the picture. The combinations are endless, but the premise remains the same, and the ending never changes. My inner klutz gleefully takes every opportunity to remind me of my talents for tripping over and walking into things, and I spend a surprising amount of energy during taper week reminding myself that I am, in fact, mostly capable of picking my own damn feet up and avoiding ending up on my ass… and that race day isn’t all that different from any other day.

I still haven’t perfected my taper week serenity yet, but what I’ve found that works the best for me is to plan (non-running) activities with my (non-running) friends. They remind me that there is more to life besides my minor aches and pains (specifically the phantom ones). I know it’s terrible that this is the only time I consciously plan to catch up with friends that I don’t always do the best job of keeping in touch with normally, but there are just not enough hours in the days. Plus, it’s a perfectly good excuse to do more races, right? Or I will slowly convince all of my friends to take up running. That is the most efficient plan of all.

Breakfast of champions...obviously the most important part of race prep!
Breakfast of champions…obviously the most important part of race prep!

What’s your magic formula for taper week??

Peanut Butter and Me

So for the past month or so, I’ve gone on a peanut butter bender. I’ve considered it a necessary part of any meal, and its own food group entirely (top of the food chain too, naturally). Seriously, I’m almost at the point where I think I need an intervention, just to gain some life balance with the other sadly neglected former food loves of mine…. but I’m not quite ready for that intervention yet. I still have half a quarter of a 1kg tub of organic, 100% natural, salted PB to get through first.


While on this kick, I have come up with all sorts of ways to incorporate this beloved food group into my diet. While recovering from my oral surgery a few weeks ago, I found ways to get PB into almost every concoction my Vitamix could dream up. Notable standouts included a PB and Java shake, PB and Banana ice cream, and just plain PB on a spoon. (It’s that bad).

I’ve also discovered fantastic flourless PB cookies that continue to evolve with each new batch I make, and awesome (and easy!)mini frozen PB and Banana sandwiches, which were inspired by a random how-to picture that made its way through facebook land.

Mini PB and Banana energy bites

3-4 ripe bananas, sliced into rounds
2 100g bars of Lindt dark chocolate (I used the Chili one for some spice, but the Sea Salt would be nice too, or just plain)
100% pure PB (salted)
….that’s it!

What you do:

Spread a layer of PB on one banana round, and top with another banana. Repeat until all rounds are used.


Melt chocolate in a bowl. I find melting it in one minute increments works well… check and stir as you go, to avoid burning. Using dark chocolate (lower sugar content) also helps to reduce the risk of burning. You may also wish to melt your chocolate in two batches… use the first batch until you run out, and then melt more for the rest. I found that this made it easier to work with the chocolate before it started hardening again.

Have a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or something non-stick) ready to go.

This next part is a bit finicky, as the chocolate is quite hot and you don’t necessarily want to just plunge your hands in and get messy. I used a couple of forks and it worked out alright. Drop your little banana sandwiches into the chocolate, roll them around quickly, fish them out, and stick them onto your baking sheet. Repeat.

Pop them into the freezer for several hours, and then you can either stick them in ziplock freezer bags for future treats, or enjoy right away! Personally, I chose both. 🙂


Rest Days on Sunny Fridays…aka Wasted Sunshine!


So it’s a beautiful day for a run…I’m full of energy and caffeine, and super stoked that today is Friday. The only problem with this little equation is that today (according to my newly minted training plan from my brand-spankin’-new coaches Eric and Gary), is supposed to be a rest day.

Wah. Buzzkill! Wasted sunshine!

It’s definitely not the dilemma I thought I’d have in my first week of training. But really, this week – notable for being my inaugural foray into official training territory – marks the first time that my regular “go with the flow and don’t stop until something hurts too bad to continue” mentality faces off against a structured plan with planned days of rest that are designed around when you “should” rest, not just days when you “don’t feel like” running.

So here I am. Despite flirting with the idea of bombing up Grouse mtn after work and disregarding my rest day, I’ve decided to behave. Considering I have a slightly tweaking ongoing knee pain that won’t quite go away, I probably should be resting anyways.

I’m going to enjoy a nice long walk after work with my best bud Odin (who is on week 4 of the cone of shame, at the moment), and look forward to running the second half of the Squamish50 course with a bunch of crazies tomorrow morning. With the weather forecast threatening snow, you never know what could happen.TGIF!