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.

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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.