Are You Racing Towards Burnout?

On April 2nd I raced Rainshadow Gorge 100km for the second year in a row. This race was the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, as I attempted to fit high volume training mileage into a schedule already jam-packed with work, school, and life responsibilities. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t always hit 100% of the runs that I was supposed to do, and I had a couple good ol’ fashioned meltdowns along the way (cured by foregoing workouts for chocolate, wine and Netflix). However, looking back at my training block now, I’m still pretty damn proud that I managed to fit in the training that I did, and I’m slowly getting better at being okay with adapting to Plan B when Plan A just isn’t happening.

One of the things I see a lot of among fellow ultrarunners is the propensity to go 100% balls-to-walls until we burnout, recover enough to do it again, and then repeat the whole darn cycle. It’s easy to do, even unintentionally, as we continuously set bigger and bigger race goals. It’s even more of a danger when we use races as springboards to longer races (Ie. Running several “C” goal “shorter” ultra races consecutively over a few months as we head towards the larger “A” goal of the 100k/100m/long-fucking race, with no recovery in between… after all, the shorter ones are just catered training runs, right?😉).

The danger in that strategy is that it presents the temptation to push too hard at each event, without giving our bodies the time they deserve to recover after that level of effort. Some runners are really good at using races as long training runs, and they can resist being drawn into pushing harder than they should be. I totally commend them for it, and I’m slightly jealous. Personally, I’m still working on it. I’m definitely better at running smarter and more conservative races than I was a couple of years ago, but if I’m totally honest with myself, I still end up pushing harder than I would if I was to run that distance on my own as a pure training run.

It’s something that we need to talk about more, because the trend of signing up for many races throughout the year as “training” or “fun” runs can actually contribute to overall burnout and fatigue. I’m 100% guilty of it too. Exhibit A: In my first 16 months of running ultras, I “raced” EIGHT 50km races and one 50 miler, not to mention multiple smaller races along the way. I got to the point where I was no longer enjoying myself, dreaded start lines, and didn’t have any desire to push hard at all – I was tired, mentally and physically burnt out, and I didn’t even know it.

Since then, my solution has been to sign up for less races. For example, this year I’ve got exactly three races on the calendar. Orcas Island 50k on February 6, which was a “C” race for me on the road to my “B” race of the year, the Gorge 100k on April 2. I still properly tapered and recovered from Orcas 50k, but I also ran it fairly conservatively knowing that it wasn’t a major goal race for me. My one and only “A” race this year will be Fat Dog 120miler on August 12 AND 13, but in between April 2 and August 12 I plan on doing nothing but fun, easy, long adventures, focusing on time-on feet. My coach Gary Robbins has been a huge help in this regard, and at the beginning of the year as we map out my schedule he insists that I rank my races by priority, and then adjust my expectations and training accordingly. It’s a much more balanced approach to running and racing, and its meant that when I actually do toe the line of an A-goal race, I feel refreshed and ready to push myself.

The other part to the overtraining piece is that we often don’t give enough care and intention to our tapering and recovery periods. It can be very frustrating to go from high volume training weeks to almost zero activity for the two or three weeks leading up to the race (hello, taper tantrums), and even more frustrating to give our bodies the recovery time they deserve following our actual race – especially if we have a good race that leaves us feeling powerful and epic and ready to conquer the world (anyone else get that or is it just me?). This feeling of invincibility is usually followed by feeling 90 years old, as every bone and muscle in my body hurts for a solid week or two, but by the time three weeks has passed after a big race I start to ask myself existential running questions like: “Am I even a runner? I can’t remember the last time I ran!”; “Could I even run around the block right now?”; and the worst one: “Why am I winded walking up one flight of stairs??”. It can be tempting to jump the gun on recovery to stop the constant and exhausting internal diatribe, even while knowing that this will only end up biting us in the rear further down the road.

For the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering from the Gorge 100k, and feeling surprisingly (and dangerously) good post-race, I’ve done my best to keep my runs to nothing over an hour or so in length, no more than a couple times a week at an easy, social pace. It’s a good excuse to catch up with friends and make outings more about the catch-up than the exercise. With the gorgeous weather we’ve been having its very difficult to stay away from the mountains, so my solution has been to call up a buddy, grab cameras and gear, and make a fun and SUPER mellow adventure out of the day… with much stopping for photo fun and ridiculous antics. I always find the buddy system is good for holding me accountable, so don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage and schedule social time as religiously as you normally do long runs.

Perfecting my post-holing with Adam Ciuk
Perfecting my post-holing with Adam Ciuk

The biggest key, for me, is to always remember why we do this crazy sport in the first place. Sure, it’s pretty satisfying to sign up for a crazy-long race and train our asses off for it, but I see races more as bookmarks and progress indicators along a much bigger journey of exploration and lifelong adventure. We are so incredibly lucky to have our health and fitness and the ability to access incredible parts of the world with our own two legs, and we can’t and shouldn’t take that for granted. So balance the work with play, and, most importantly – Have fun out there!

photo credit: Adam Ciuk
photo credit: Adam Ciuk

Putting on my Big Girl Ultra Pants

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, I was nervously getting ready to run my first 100km race, the Gorge 100km in the stunning Columbia River Gorge.

Mid race last year. Moss for days!
Mid race last year. Moss for days!

This year at this time, I am also nervously getting ready to run this same 100km race for the second time. I guess that first part hasn’t changed.

Exactly what has changed can be found more in the time that lies between the two dates. Last year’s race was my longest distance to date, and I had one goal: finish. This year, having had great races at both the Gorge 100km and Fat Dog 70miler last year, I find myself toeing the start line for this still-daunting distance again this Saturday, with a new goal: finish faster than last year. Last year I finished in 14:12:34. This year, my goal is sub 14 hours. Doesn’t matter if its only one minute less than 14 hours, but that’s what a good day will look like for me this year.

The 2016 edition of this race features an incredibly deep field for both men and women, as the top 2 men and women will once again be gifted with an elusive “golden ticket” to the venerable granddaddy of ultras, Western States. For the rest of us more lowly mortals, the 2016 edition of this race now counts as a qualifier for the WS lottery…which is the reason that I am back to run this course for the third year in a row (the first year being the 50k version, back when I thought people who ran 100kms in one stretch were completely mental. They still are, come to think of it).

For many reasons, this year’s race poses new challenges to be overcome.

1) Training, or the lack thereof. I enrolled in part time courses at BCIT this past semester – which, on top of working full time and balancing schooling, running, life and relationships, singing and performing regularly in a high-level choir, has proved to be a bit challenging as far as fitting in long runs are concerned. There were many weekends over the past few months where I couldn’t string together 4 hours in a row for a long run, so I would end up bookending my day with a few hours early in the morning, followed by a few more hours late at night (then repeat the next day), which grew exhausting and uninspiring over time. Contrary to the beautiful pictures of adventures that I tend to favour on my Instagram account, I compensate for those amazing moments in time with many boring slogs around my neighbourhood’s industrial style “trails”, punctuated by hill repeats in the rain and dark.
2) Ongoing shoe problems. I have had difficulty finding a pair of shoes that I can run more than 2 hours in for the past six months, and have cycled through just about every pair and style that I can get my hands on in an effort to find something that doesn’t result in burning arch pain and the inability to walk properly for a few hours after a long run. One month ago, I got my hands on a pair of Saucony Nomads, and ran my last week of long runs in them with reasonable success and minimal pain. Because of that, they are looking like my best option right now, so I’ll be toeing the line in a pair and style of shoes that I have very little experience with. Suffice to say that I will be sending backup pairs to every aid station along the course just in case these ones tank.
3) Pacers no longer allowed. I was fortunate to have benefitted from incredibly strong pacing by my friend Brice at both of my 100km+ races last year, and it certainly makes a huge difference to have that injection of fresh energy after running (and talking to myself) for 10+ hours on my own. However, in order to make Gorge 100km a Western States qualifier, Rainshadow Running eliminated pacers from this year’s race – a decision I actually agree with, as it levels the playing field, especially for the elites vying for the Western States entries. However, it will mark the first 100km distance race that I’ve tackled completely on my own, which is certainly a terrifying thought. It’s just me competing with me, and when the going gets tough I’m the only one who’ll be there to dig myself out of holes and keep one foot moving in front of the other until I cross the finish line. Basically, it’s time for me to put on my big girl ultra pants.

95km in last year and still smiling. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama
95km in last year and still smiling. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

Here’s a couple of things that are working well, just to balance out the first list.

1) Nutrition is dialled in. Over the past year, I’ve worked really hard with coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter to dial in my nutrition, and I think I’ve got it sorted. My primary calorie sources for a race this distance are dates, nut butters, avocado, and then coca-cola and chips at the aid stations. The coke provides simple sugars, and the chips reset the palette so that I don’t end up with sugar overload. This combination has worked well for me over the last year, and I’m going to stick with it for this race as well.
2) Mental space. Having a few long distance races under my belt has done wonders for my confidence, and I’m excited to see how adding in this new challenge of no pacers will affect my day. I consider one of my strengths to be my ability to stay positive for hours on end, so this race will test that theory out. Looking forward to seeing how my experiences over the past year play into this year’s race.
3) More sleep. Last year, I took the early race start to give myself as much time to finish as possible, which meant that I set my alarm for 1:30am, and began racing at the ungodly hour of 3am. I’m not sure why that is even legal, it seems downright inhumane. This year’s race time has moved, and it will now begin at the relatively sane hour of 6am, which means that I will hopefully not have to get up before 4:30am or so… practically luxurious. Crossing my fingers that having a few hours more sleep will make a difference to my energy levels during the day.
4) Girls roadtrip. I’m very lucky to count some incredibly badass (and crazy fast) women as my friends, and we are turning this weekend into a girls getaway (although running a 100km race is not the traditional format for one of those, I know). I’m always amazed by the incredible people that I have met through the trail running community and now count as friends, and these ladies are a big part of that. Excited to see them all kick butt (including mine!) on Saturday. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a special shoutout to Miss Tara Holland, who is tackling this race as her first 100km. It’s double any distance she’s ever raced before, and she only found out a few weeks ago that she was going to be running it at all, when she made it off the waitlist at the last minute. Her primary reason for signing up in the first place? It sounded like a fun getaway, and she wanted to come hangout with the gang. I love having friends as crazy as me. 🙂

The one challenge I haven’t mentioned yet – and it’s probably the biggest one that I worry about – is that because I ran this race last year, I now have a benchmark to compete against. In my head, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s no longer good enough to just finish. I know that I’ll be fighting to avoid looking at the time or worry about my pace and whether I am on track to reach my sub-14 hour goal. Also, because the course is an out-and-back, you get to see where everyone is as they reach the halfway mark and turn around… which can also mess with running my own race, because it’s hard not to compare where I am versus where others are on the course. Times like this are when I really appreciate having all of Gary’s insight and knowledge, and he has helped me to work through my fears during the last few weeks and focus on running my own race – and avoid trying to run someone else’s race instead. It may sound simple, but when you have that many hours to think about nothing but what time you’ll be finishing at (mostly so that I can sit down and eat and sleep), worrying about my placement or time could end up sending me into a negative spiral that completely derails my race. I was never very good at math to begin with, and my math during races especially sucks at the best of times. I’ve had races where I’ve calculated that at my current pace, I am days away from finishing, rather than the 5 or 10km I actually have left. Oops.

Primary goal #1: get out there, have a great day, and focus on being thankful that I am healthy and fit enough to run these races in the first place.


Stay tuned to find out how it all works out! The adventure continues.

It’s not me, it’s you. Or is it me?

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I have a love/hate relationship with my running shoes. On the one hand, I love them because they’ve kept me going when the going gets tough, and I log many, many miles in my trusty sneakers as I explore treacherous, slippery trails, wade through creeks, and scramble over boulder fields. I develop a bond with my shoes – we’re a team, and we’re working together. My garage is a graveyard of retired shoes, and the holes in the uppers and bald, tread-less soles speak to the love we once shared together. I have a great deal of difficulty parting with these sad, decrepit shoes once they’ve exceeded their shelf life, despite their failing form and decidedly unsavoury aromas. They have all shared in my victories and defeats, and they’ve been my biggest supporters – some more than others – in this crazy journey I’m on.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, my shoes are very important to me. I’ve had a few fleeting periods of time over the past few years where my shoes did everything right, and I religiously stuck with them over and over again, hoping they would be my 4ever solemates.

Last year, those shoes were the Pearl Izumi N2’s. I went through four consecutive pairs during the bulk of last year’s training, they never once needed breaking in or caused me so much as a single hotspot, and I wore them with great success at both of my longest races of 2015, the Gorge 100km and Fat Dog 70 Miler.

Approximately 40 miles into Fat Dog, however, I started getting some pretty serious pain through my arches… not a good thing. Much of this can no doubt be chalked up to my body’s reluctance to run for +16 hours straight (shocker), but I nonetheless flagged the issue as a potential problem. Months later and still wearing a (new but otherwise identical) version of the same shoe, I kept noticing that this burning pain would return after only a few hours on the trails. Not good. Was it my shoes, or some sort of stress fracture, or a combo of the above? I wasn’t sure, but the first thing that had to be revisited was my footwear. I went back to the drawing board, and for the past few months I’ve been cycling through shoes trying to find a pair that works. And for the record: Yes, this does mean that I’m currently ignoring the possibility of a more serious problem like stress fractures, but allow me to live in ignorance for just a little while longer until I’ve satisfied myself on the shoe front – aka, that it’s me, not you.

I’ve learned two things through this exhaustive testing process (that kind of feels like speed dating, oddly enough… swipe left, swipe right, move on):

• It’s expensive. Shoes are not cheap, and this is an especially painful truth when you are cycling through a pair a month trying to find “the ones”.

• It can also be literally painful, as the trial and error phase invariably involves fun experiments like trying out shoes without rock plates (a whole lotta ouch), or wearing sizing that feels fine until you try to run downhill after your feet swell up slightly (my toenails will never be the same). Also, apparently my left foot is slightly bigger than my right foot? At least, that’s what the blister patterns tell me…

Anyways. I am now four months into my shoe experimentation, and have so far tested out the Inov-8 270’s (the lack of a rockplate just didn’t cut it for my wussy feet), the Salomon Speedcross 3’s (great tread on technical terrain, but sizing is a bit weird and they are either too big or slightly too small), and I’m currently dabbling with the Pearl Izumi N1’s (yes I know, almost full circle, but there are subtle differences in the design which give me cause for optimism). All I want is to find the shoe that has everything – the perfect cushioning to go far, the perfect tread to grip slippery roots and forest service roads alike, and the perfect combination of light materials and durable support. Essentially, I want one shoe that does it all. Is that too much to ask?? 🙂

I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet. My experiences so far tell me that every shoe sacrifices some aspects in the interest of others, and that I need to prioritize what I want out of my shoes. However, I’m not quite willing to concede defeat yet.

Looking for opinions! Is there one shoe that “does it all” for you, or should I be content with a shoe that does “some things very well and some things well enough”? What shoes are you loving right now?

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.

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! 😉