Ice Ultra Race Report

Well, the 2017 Ice Ultra has come and gone, another amazing experience in the books. Beyond the Ultimate’s Ice Ultra is a five day, 230 km self supported stage race that takes place above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. I am not typically a “winter person”, normally preferring to huddle inside under a pile of blankets waiting for spring rather than getting out there and frolicking in the snow, so when I signed up for the Ice Ultra last year I knew I was going to have to change my attitude about being out in the cold. I started buying up all the cold weather gear and spouting things like “there’s no bad weather, only bad gear” as I prepared for this event. This was also the one and only time in my life when I actually hoped for a cold, snowy winter. Mother Nature was only too happy to oblige, and we did indeed get a rather cold, snowy winter, perfect for my training.

Having a very healthy respect for the cold, this event made me pretty nervous. So, in my typical fashion, I dealt with my anxiety by becoming ultra prepared. I spent hours on the internet researching and buying gear, and even more hours testing it all in the cold. I did 8+ hour training runs in -25C, and I even slept outside in a tent in my backyard when it was close to -30C to test my sleeping bag. I ate freeze-dried meals on the nights before long runs, and I threw my snacks into the freezer to ensure they would still be edible once frozen. By the time race day came, I was feeling pretty good about both my training and my choice of gear, and I was excited to get going.

IMG_5352

Backyard tenting

The adventure began in Gallivare, Sweden, where we boarded a bus that would take us to the starting point of the race, a winter camp over 300 kms above the Arctic Circle. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends, and meeting new ones, and the bus was filled with chatter on the way to the camp. Once at the camp, we had a race briefing with race director Kris King and other members of the Beyond the Ultimate team, followed by a kit check. It was during this kit check that I realized that a couple important items of my kit had been left behind. I’m still not sure how this happened as I am normally very careful about my kit, but somehow it did. My balaclava was missing, as well as the Kahtoola Microspikes I had planned on bringing. It was ok though, I had enough other head and face coverings to make up for the balaclava, and the spikes were just an extra that would have been nice to have, mainly on the first stage.

After kit check, there was a lot of mingling and waiting around until the teepees were ready and it was bedtime. Bed was a reindeer pelt on the snow in an unheated teepee. I was glad I had tested my sleeping bag and night gear, because even though the temperature dropped very low, I was toasty warm all night. During the night the wind picked up, which would prove to become a factor during the first stage the next day.

So, at this point I had planned on doing a detailed report of each stage, but as often happens to me on long runs, I tend to zone out and really don’t remember large chunks of the route. I do have general impressions from each stage, but many of the details are really eluding me at this point. The thing I remember most about the first, 50 km stage is the relentless wind. Going over bare frozen lakes (where those forgotten spikes would really have come in handy!), climbing a seemingly endless hill, and the wind that threatened to blow me off my feet every time it gusted. As the day wore on, the wind only seemed to get stronger, and as darkness fell, another endless hill. At this point I am not sure if it was actually snowing, or if the snow was just blowing, but as I turned on my headlamp, the sideways snow made visibility very difficult. I don’t know if you’ve ever used a headlamp in the snow, but it flashes and glitters in the light and you really can see very little. The route was marked by small reflective flags, and the flashing snow made it very difficult to see them. I was literally going marker to marker, reaching one, then searching for the flash of the next one that was a little different kind of flash than that of the blowing snow. This section of the course was literally the most extreme thing I have ever done. I was by myself and could see no other runners either ahead or behind me, the temperature was falling, the wind was blowing very hard, and I could not tell where I was going. It was only the occasional passing of one of our Sami crew on a snowmobile that kept me from giving in to the fear that I felt at this point. Once I reached the top of that hill though, and started running down the other side, things definitely started improving. There were some trees so the wind wasn’t quite as fierce, and the path became much more defined. Once I started seeing lights in the distance, I knew I had this stage licked. The warm hikers cabin was a welcome retreat, and after some hot food and a change of clothing, everything was fine in my world once again. I did have one of the medics look at my face, but she deemed it to be windburn and not frostbite, for which I was thankful. Others were not so lucky, and several people were not allowed to start the next morning due to frostbite.

IMG_5793

The vast, emptiness of stage 1

The morning of stage 2 was bright and sunny and the nasty wind had abated. My biggest impression of stage 2 was that I felt tired all day. I can’t really remember too much else about this day, except for the feeling of being tired. In the morning it was announced that due to an impassable lake, the 60km course was being shortened to 44km (I think?), and because of how I was feeling all day, I wasn’t too disappointed about that. I do know that is was bright and sunny with a lot of soft snow, over lakes and through forests and it was all very beautiful. I had the pleasure of “running” the last 10 or so km with fellow Canadian Paul Chan. Paul was feeling a bit tired this day as well (and no wonder, check out Paul and brother Eric’s epic journey here), so it was good we had each other to finish off the stage with. Because of the shortened course, the place we finished was not the same place we were spending the night, so we were being shuttled in a car to our night camp. I unfortunately had to wait a little while before it was my turn to go, and as soon as I stopped running, I got very, very cold, as I tend to do. The medical crew did a great job of getting me warm drinks and a big warm coat and keeping an eye on me until it was my time to go. The nice warm car with heated seats and heater on full blast helped get me warmed up, and then the heated cabin, change of clothes, and some hot food finished the job. It was at this point I realized that I had way to many snacks left over from the day, and I also had not peed all day. No wonder I felt tired all day, I had totally mismanaged both my food and hydration over the day. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I vowed to do better the next day. I also had a couple of small blisters at this point, a result I am sure of being in the snowshoes the entire day. I got them drained and taped up and they were not an issue for the rest of the race. I was also totally shocked when I looked in the mirror that night…the windburn on my face looked terrible, all brown and scabby and my entire face was very swollen. One of the medics had a look at it the next morning though, and did not seem overly concerned about it, so neither was I. Sadly, we were not sleeping in the nice toasty cabin this night, it was off to the teepees and the reindeer pelts again.

IMG_5799

Bright and sunny on stage 2

Stage 3 was the day of the endless lake. It started out nice enough, through some pretty forested areas, but about half way into the stage was the very, very long lake. I am told this lake is 40 km long, and for the last half of stage 3, we traversed around 20km of it. 20km of flat, you can see forever, lake. It seemed endless….just an endless expanse of soft, mushy snow, going on forever. I got through this part of the stage by counting trail markers…100 markers, take a drink, 100 more markers, have a snack, repeat, repeat, repeat. Half way through the lake section was a checkpoint, at which RD Kris told me, just around the next bend you will start to see the red flags of the next camp. Well, that was a lie because it was much, much farther before I started seeing the flags, but when I did, it gave me hope that this stage was almost over. The camp for the night was a beautiful set of little cabins on an island in the middle of the lake. A large, warm cabin awaited for eating and socializing, and then small 3 person cabins, complete with a wood stove and real beds was home for the night. We unintentionally turned our little cabin into a sauna by stoking the fire a little too much, but truthfully I didn’t mind, because the heat felt so nice after being out in the cold for so long.

IMG_5802

“As soon as you get up there, you’ll start to see the flags” Not.

Stage 4 was the long day…64 km, and some time during the night it had started snowing. The snow continued to fall for the entire day. I have to say, I really enjoyed stage 4, well the first 50 or so km of it anyway. The trail wound its way through forests and across lakes all day, and the snow fell all day. I felt really good this day and my spirits were high. There was a short course cut off for those who did not make it to the 50 km checkpoint by 8:00 pm, but this wasn’t an issue for me, I made it there with plenty of time to spare. After the 50 km mark however, the route got significantly more difficult. It got dark and colder, there was a fairly substantial hill to climb, and because the snow had been falling the entire day, the track was deep and soft, which made for some very tough going. At one of the checkpoints I was told that at the end of the stage there was a lake with surface water. The dreaded surface water. We actually had been very lucky this year and had not encountered surface water yet, unlike last year’s racers who faced it on almost every stage. The thing is, the surface water is not actually water, but is very heavy, wet slush on top of the ice. You put your foot down on what you think is firm snow, and next thing you know, you are up to your knees in this heavy, wet slush. There were times when I feared I was stuck because I was still wearing my snowshoes, and it was very, very difficult to pull my foot out of the slush with my tired legs. So, with each step, legs and feet were immersed in freezing cold water, and for the only time on the entire race, my feet got cold. This lake section was only around 500 meters long, but it was such slow going and felt like it lasted forever. To top it off, I could see the lights and buildings of the finish taunting me ahead.

IMG_5803

Beautiful, snow terrain of stage 4

When I got to the stage finish, I still felt pretty good. I went inside the heated building and started getting something warm to eat and drink. Suddenly though, I started shivering and shivering and felt incapacitated by cold. The Exile Medics team were right on top of it though, getting me my night bag, helping me to get out of my cold, wet clothing and shoes and get my warm night clothes on, giving me one of their big warm down Yeti suits to wear, bringing me warm drinks and hot packs, and just generally taking excellent care of me. They put me by the wood stove, where I lay there shivering for literally several hours before I eventually warmed up. From what I understand, this was likely caused by warm blood leaving my core to go and try and save my freezing extremities, combined with caloric deficit and extreme fatigue. It is very common for me to get really cold after extended sessions, but I have never experienced anything like this before! By the time I warmed up enough to be released by medical, it was very late. Home for the night was a very large teepee with a wooden floor heated by a wood stove. From all accounts, it was not actually very much warmer than outside, however, I had been allowed to stay and sleep in the building that was being used by the medics, only slightly warmer than the teepee, but my big sleeping bag kept me toasty again. After just a few hours sleep, it was time to get up for the final day.

There was a feeling of excitement in the air as everyone prepared for the final stage, just 15 km. First though, we had to go back across the lake. Thankfully, some of our faithful Sami crew had found us a path that would avoid the surface water. Still, we all set off in single file as nobody wanted to take the chance of getting their feet wet! After the lake we climbed a big hill, then a big, super fun downhill run in the soft, fresh snow. After that it was winding our way around the edges of Jokkmokk before coming right in through the town to the finish line. It is always an exciting and euphoric feeling to come across the line at the end of a big event, and this was no different. There were congratulatory hugs, cold beer, and delicious rotisserie chicken waiting at the finish line before we were driven to our cabins for the night, where hot showers and soft beds waited.

IMG_5805

Finish line!

The after party was full of good food and drink, much laughter and tales of the trail before the bus ride to Lulea the next morning, where we bade farewell to friends old and new until next time. One of the things I love most about these adventures are the people I meet along the way. I love my ultra running family, and each time I do a new race, I add new members to it, and I just love how my family is growing. I love showing up at a race and seeing familiar faces. I love how my ultra family, which used to be just local, has become international. Everyone has their own story, their own reasons for being out there, and even though we are all facing our own challenges and walking our own paths, we are united for this short time we are together and we all become a part of each others stories. I love that.

If you have managed to read this far, I thank you for that because I know it is very long, and I thank you for letting me share my journey with you. If you would like more information about Beyond the Ultimate and its races, drop me a line and I’ll try and tell you what you want to know. Thanks for reading.

Just keep moving forward.

Photo crew to the incredible Mikkel Beisner

Third time lucky?

Third time’s the charm? Well I hope so because I just registered for my third attempt at a 100 miler. This time the attempt will be made at the beautiful and challenging Sinister 7 Ultra. I am hoping I can carry some of the things I have learned along the way into this 100 mile attempt, some things that I learned not only in my past failures at this distance, but also some things I have learned in my successes at other distances. I know I have said this before, but I really try to take something away from each race experience. Whether I have been successful or not, there is always something to learn, something to take away and apply to future endeavors. So, here are some things I have learned that I am going to try to bring to this race.

The first lesson is you can’t cheat the training. When you get a bit overconfident or a bit blasé, it is easy to think you can cheat the training. This is exactly what happened to me in my last attempt at 100 miles. I didn’t even realize until after it was over that this had happened, but in the 20/20 of hindsight, I know that my training was insufficient. I did not respect the race or the distance, and the outcome was exactly what you could expect with the level of training I did. Lesson learned. Always respect the distance and train accordingly.

The second less I have learned, or at least been harshly reminded of, is you can’t cheat your nutrition. This harsh reminder came to me at the past September’s Grand to Grand Ultra, on day 3, the long stage. On the long day, it was very hot. I didn’t feel like eating, so I cheated it. Sometime in the afternoon, my brain started telling me to quit. It started telling me that I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t even want to do it, that I should just stop and lay down in the shade. I started crying, big ugly sobs, and all I wanted to do was quit. I felt so done. I made it to the next checkpoint, where I was able to sit in the shade and devour a big bag of candy. Well, that made all the difference in the world. After about 15 minutes of sitting and ingesting pure sugar, I was ready to roll again. All my defeatist thoughts were gone, I knew I could do it, I wanted to do it, and I did do it! Once I had my brain back in gear and started to think about what had happened, I realized that I had not been eating enough that day. It was hot and I didn’t feel like eating, so I began skipping my snacks. There is a reason why we make a nutrition plan, and when we don’t follow it, the results can be disastrous. Luckily I was able to save the day this time, and it was certainly a good reminder to stick to the plan, even when I don’t feel like it.

pose

The third lesson that I have gradually been learning is to break a long race or stage of a race down into more manageable chunks. When you look at the big picture, the whole distance, it can become overwhelming. I think this happened to some degree at my last 100 mile attempt. When David and I were talking about packing it in, all we could see was the big distance left to cover. In that wonderful perfect vision of hindsight, I can’t help but wonder if we’d broken it down into smaller segments, just worried about getting to the next checkpoint rather than thinking about the 60 or so km still left to cover, we might have had a better chance. I don’t really know because there was also the whole poor training thing, but maybe? Since then, I have really tried to focus on more of a checkpoint-to-checkpoint way of thinking. At Grand to Grand, my mantra every day was checkpoint-to-checkpoint. Others would be talking about how far the stage was, but I just kept my mind focused on the distance between checkpoints. It just seemed so much more manageable that way.

So, in the months to come, I need to remind myself of these lessons. Also, I will have a lot more practice at them by race day because I also plan to use them to get me through the Ice Ultra in February. I really want to be successful at 100 miles this time, but I also know that if for some reason I am not, well, it won’t be the end of the world. There are always lessons to be learned and applied, in all aspects of life. We just need to recognize them, and act on them.

Just keep moving forward.

 

1, 2, 3, Go! …or how to stay motivated in the off season

So all your summer and fall races are done. Maybe you’re signed up for some races next year, but it’s too soon to start a training plan for them yet. It’s the off season. That in between time when you’re not really training for anything. Sometimes during this period it can be hard to stay motivated to get out on your daily run. Here are some things I came up with to help get you out the door during your off season.

  1. First of all, be kind to yourself. If you’ve trained hard since spring to get ready for your summer and fall races, your body likely needs a bit of a break. So, take it easy. Don’t feel like you need to get out there and go full bore every single run. Go shorter distances than you have been. Run easier. Leave your watch at home. Skip the speed work and the hill training for awhile. Take the time to remember what you love about running, and just do that.
  1. Mix it up. The off season is the perfect opportunity to get back to all of those activities that you love, but have put on the back burner during racing season. Get out your bike and go for a ride. Go hiking and see the fall colours. Take that class at your local gym that you’ve been wanting to try out. Go for a long walk and rediscover your neighbourhood. Once the snow flies, get out your snowshoes or cross-country skies. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something that you enjoy.

img_0975

  1. If you’re one of those people that just can’t do without a plan, now is the time to reflect on your past season and think about the highs and lows, where your strengths and weaknesses were, and where you would like to see yourself in the coming season. Make a plan to improve those weaknesses and write it down. Formulate some workouts that can help you develop in those areas where you’d like to see improvement, and work them into your plan. Sometimes just having a to-do list is all it takes to get out the door.
  1. Sometimes lack of motivation has to do with the weather. Once it turns cold and wintry outside, it can be easier to stay inside snuggled underneath the covers rather than brave a morning run. Get a little retail therapy and invest in some cold-weather running gear that you really love. Not only will it keep you warm and comfortable out there, but who doesn’t like putting on a piece of clothing that looks and feels great? A good pair of winter running shoes or one of the many available traction devices can help you keep your grip on ice and snow covered pathways.

So, as the previous running season fades away, use these tips to keep up your motivation and keep your fitness going until it is time to start training for your next race. Just keep moving forward.

The DNF

Those dreaded letters….DNF. Did not finish. In the world of ultrarunning, or any endurance sport for that matter, it is usually only a matter of time before sooner or later, you see those letters beside your name on the race results page. Sometimes, you feel devastated by it. You’ve trained hard and long for an event, but then, for whatever reason, you are unable to complete it. The first time I experienced a DNF, I was devastated. My first DNF was hot on the heels of my dead last place finish at my first ever ultra…I did not get off to a good start in this sport.

It was at the Canadian Death Race, and I missed a time cut-off. Anyone who knows about the Death Race knows about this time cut-off after the third leg. It is a tough, arbitrary cut off time, in my opinion presumably made to make the race appear harder. A lower finisher rate = a race that seems much more difficult. Now don’t get me wrong, the Canadian Death Race is no walk in the park. It is a very hard race, but in many cases, mine included, people who could otherwise have no problem going on to finish this race often miss that cut-off, sometimes only by minutes. The CDR was my first really big ultra, and yes, I was totally devastated when I didn’t make the cut-off. I cried hard, ugly tears because I knew I could’ve gone on to finish the race. But, that’s how it goes, cut-offs are there and either you make them or you don’t.

The next time I DNF’d was still very hard, but not quite as devastating to me. It was at the Sinister 7  ultra, another really big race for me. It was a little bit easier for me because I made the decision myself to drop out, rather than someone telling me I had to drop out. I went into it with a hip injury, and then my stomach decided it was not going to cooperate with me that day. I went for as long as I physically could, but ultimately knew I wasn’t going to make it to the end, so I made the hard decision and dropped. I only cried a little bit that time.

Since then, there have been two other DNF’s at long, tough races. Once because I got injured during the race, and once because my mind gave up. Incidentally these were both at the same 100-miler, the Lost Soul in Lethbridge. The injury….well, what are you going to do? But the other, well, I keep looking back and regretting that decision. At the time though, it was the only decision I could make. People say ultra marathons are 90% mental, so when the mind gives up, it can be very difficult to get it back.

So, fast forward to last weekend. Last weekend I ran in the Grizzly Ultra  50k race. This is fresh off my finish at the 273km long Grand to Grand ultra, which wrapped up just a week prior to toeing the starting line at the Grizzly. So, to be fair, when I registered for the Grizzly, I had a calendar mistake and thought I had 2 weeks in between that and G2G. In reality, it was just a week, so I knew going into the Grizzly that it could go either way. It was for sure less than ideal conditions…my lingering fatigue from not only G2G, but from an entire season of long, hard races, blizzard conditions that almost caused us to turn back on the drive out there, cold, slushy, muddy trails etc. I know the trail conditions were the same for everyone, but in my fatigued state it seemed much more of a slog than it should have. At one point, I came across a downed runner and stayed there with her for awhile, long enough to become very cold, which I never really recovered from either. So, after 25k, I made the decision to drop out. This time, the decision was actually a pretty easy one. As I had been running a long downhill into the check-point area, my legs had simply been saying “nope”. My knees hurt, my hips hurt, and I just wasn’t having fun. Now I know that ultra running is not always fun, but to some degree it has to be, or we would never stay out there. This was no degree of fun. Cold, wet, tired, legs not cooperating? Totally time to pack it in. So, I made the decision and I actually felt fine about it. People were telling me they were sorry, but I was just glad to be somewhere warm. I didn’t even cry.

img_4790

I think part of being a seasoned runner is being smart enough to know when to say “it’s not my day” and pack it in, and when you can push through and keep going. Yes, I probably could have gutted it out and finished the 50k, but that would not have been the right decision on that day. No point getting injured, I need to live to run another day. Other times, well, maybe I could have done something different and saved the day. It’s hard to say. It’s really easy to look back second guess yourself, but at the time, you are making the only decision that seems right.

I look at each race as a learning experience and try to take something away each time. Yesterday’s lesson was one I already knew going in…it’s too soon. Not enough recovery. I can’t do all the races, as much as I might want to. But, I’m still glad I went out and tried, because if we don’t try, we don’t learn the lessons. And there’s always next year.

Just keep moving forward.

 

photo credit to Julia Mitton

Another adventure on the way…

So, I did the thing again. Closed my eyes, hit send, and promptly went into panic mode. Then I went running downstairs to where my daughter Clare was watching television, and with my heart pounding and panic in my voice I said “Clare, I just did something”. Without skipping a beat her reply was “What did you sign up for?” Yes, my family knows me so well.

This time, I accidently signed up for Beyond the Ultimate’s Desert Ultra in November 2017. A mere 250 km over 5 stages in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. Self-supported of course. Only this time, I guess it wasn’t quite as accidental as it often is. This time I thought about it first. Actually, I thought about it for quite some time. I read the stage information, looked at the map to find out where Namibia even is, even checked flights to find out how long it would take me to travel there. I actually thought about it for a few weeks. I wanted to do it, but something was holding me back. What exactly was holding me back, I am not sure. Well, it is going to be hard. I mean, the long stage is 100km! 100 km is long even when it is all by itself, let alone on the 4th day, after already having gone 135 km in the previous 3 days. But then again, they are all hard and that hasn’t held me back before. Maybe it was because Namibia is really far away from home. I have never been that far away before, but then again, Peru is pretty far away too and that never stopped me. Maybe I was having doubts about my ability to complete such a task? I don’t know, not consciously, but maybe. I have had doubts before, but that never stopped me. So, I thought about it, and visited and revisited the BTU website, read and re-read the stage information that I had asked for to help me make my decision, and I just kind of let the idea fester in my brain, still unsure.

14231193_1263796313654028_4644968633397786331_o

Actually, I think it was to my detriment that I actually thought this one through. Usually I just grab onto an idea and go with it before I have had a chance to think it through, and save all the doubt and worry for when its already a done deal. Not this time though. I have had all this time to think of the what-ifs before I even signed up. One of the hallmarks of anxiety is asking yourself “what if” questions a hundred times a day…what if it’s too hard, what if it’s too hot, what if I fail, what if I don’t like it there, and on and on and on. Things that sometimes seem totally ridiculous when you actually stop and consider them (what if I get eaten by a cheetah?). One day though, I sat myself down (not actually, I do all my best thinking while out running) and asked myself what was actually holding me back? It is a question I have often asked others when they have been faced with a decision. What’s holding you back? So I asked myself, “Self, what’s holding you back?” And I thought through all the things I mentioned above, all the crazy what ifs…it will be hard, it is far away, it will be hot, what if I can’t do it? And then I answered them all….yes it will be hard, but I can do hard. Yes it is far away, but I have wanted to visit Africa since I was old enough to know what Africa was, and in this day and age, let’s face it, far doesn’t matter. I can stay in touch with those at home almost as easily from Namibia as I can from down the street. Yes, it will be hot, but by now I am a pro at heat acclimation. Which brought me to the last one….what if I can’t do it? Well, my answer to that is, what if I can? I will never know the answer to that without giving it a shot, now will I? So, what was holding me back? Nothing really. Just my own insecurities and anxious mind. And as I have said before, I work really hard at not letting those things define or confine me. Yes, it is scary, but most of the time scary things are worth doing. And I have often said we need to seize the moment and not put off the things that we want to do, because you never know what life will bring you.

So, when I got home from my run that day, I sent David a quick text telling him I was going to sign up, he replied with a short, sweet “ok”, and I filled in the form, closed my eyes and hit send. Then panicked. But a funny thing happened. Once I got over my initial panic, I felt like everything was going to be ok. Then I put the Desert Ultra into a compartment in the back of my mind for awhile, because right now I’ve got other things to worry about. In just over 2 weeks I will be toeing the starting line of the Grand to Grand Ultra, and in February I will be heading off to Sweden to play in the snow at the Ice Ultra. I think I need to give my backpack a name, because it looks like it wont be leaving my back anytime soon.

So, what’s holding you back?

Just keep moving forward.

 

photo cred to Beyond the Ultimate

 

Iron Legs race report

So, last weekend I ran in the Iron Legs 50 trail race. This race has a 50-mile distance, which is actually 54 miles, and a 60 km distance. Both have significant elevation gain…14 000 feet for the 50 mile, and I am guessing probably around 9 or 10 000 for the 60 km. Last year I ran the 60 km, so I thought I would give the 50-miler a go this year. Sadly though, things don’t always turn out as you had planned.

The morning started out great. The weather was perfect, I chatted with some friends before the start, and I was excited for the day ahead of me. At 6:00 am, off we went. The course is divided up into 5 legs for the 60 km, and 7 legs for the 50 mile. Leg 1 is probably the easiest, not too technical and with the least amount of elevation gain. I cruised through it and felt really good. I have been doing a ton of training with my 25 lb pack, getting ready for Grand to Grand next month, so running on the trails without that weight on my back felt great. I breezed through checkpoint 1, and off I went onto leg 2.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.17.38 PM

Leg 2 gets a lot more technical and difficult, with a big climb up to the top of Powderface Ridge. Up, up I went, still feeling really good. When I got to the top I stopped and took some photos because the view from up there is stunning. This is where I ran into some problems. I was going along, enjoying the view, and apparently not paying enough attention to where I was going. Now, somewhat in my defense, the only other time I have ever been up on that ridge was during last year’s Iron Legs, and it was snowing, so I was not at all familiar with the trail and it looked entirely different this year. So, I was making my way along the ridge, following the pink flagging tape that was being used as trail markers. The ground was quite rocky so the trail was not all that distinct, but I could see two other runners up ahead of me on the ridge, so I thought nothing of it when I hadn’t seen a flag for a few minutes. I kept forging ahead, when I saw the two runners turning around and looking for markers. I immediately turned around to see if I could spot any markers behind me, and though I couldn’t, there were 3 more runners coming up behind me, so I believed I was still on course. We all caught up together and began discussing whether or not we were on course, and looking around for flags. One of the runners set out to scope around for a flag, and we never saw him again. The ground was quite rocky and rough, and though I didn’t remember it being like that from last year, I still wasn’t too concerned. As the ground became rougher and we were scrambling over big boulders, I was sure it was wrong, and just as I was about to turn back, one of the guys in our little group spotted a piece of pink flagging tape hanging from a branch further up the ridge, so we decided we were still sort of on course, and off we went towards it.

When we reached the flag, the trail was very indistinct, but since there was a flag, we all thought it must be right. The ground got rougher and the rocks bigger, and I knew it just couldn’t be right. I kept saying “this can’t be right, I’d remember this from last year”, but every once in awhile, we’d spot another piece of flagging tape and tell ourselves we were still on the right track. We went on like this for quite some time, but after an hour or so, it because all too evident that there was no trail and we were way, way off course. So, at that time we needed to make a decision. Someone in the group had a map, and we could see that the actual trail followed the ridgeline all the way down to the road. I pulled out my phone to see if there was cell service, and lo and behold, there was. I had my sister and my mother crewing for me, so I called each of them only to have them both go directly to voice mail. I had service, but they did not. Collectively we decided that it would be just as far to go back as to keep going down the ridge, so forward down the ridge it was, first scrambling dangerously over large rocks, then through thick underbrush and fallen trees. At one point we could hear voices coming from down below, and though we called to them, we heard nothing back. As it turns out, the voices were coming from the second checkpoint. When I am out doing a race, I have a call that I use to notify my crew that I am close, so when we heard the voices, I gave “the call”…a loud “ooo-hoo”, because I know this call can be heard from a distance, but again, we heard nothing back. As it turns out, my crew did hear me and called back, but I did not hear it.

IMG_4344

We carried on down the ridgeline through the fallen trees and bushes, finally, after 2 hours, popping out on the road not 200 meters from checkpoint 2. I saw my mother walking up the road to me, then my sister coming down the trail where I should have been. Understandably so, they were very relieved to see me. They had been expecting me more than 90 minutes past, and thought that I must be injured because I was so late getting to the checkpoint. I was very frustrated an angry, mostly at myself, and I knew that the chance of making the time cut off for the chance to run the long course was well out of my reach by this point. I decided that I would still carry on and do the shorter 60 km course. One of our group of 5 opted not to continue at this point, but the rest of us got a snack and filled our bottles, and set off for the next leg, the dreaded Ford Creek trail. The trail soon began to climb, and I was still angry so I rage-climbed and before too long had left the others behind. After awhile I stopped being angry and just began enjoying my day again. Ford Creek trail is steep and technical, and the day was growing quite warm. At one point I came across another runner who had run out of water and was drinking from the creek. I offered him some of my water, but he declined. I was secretly glad he declined because I was running a bit low myself. He told me that he also had missed the trail up on Powderface Ridge, only unlike me, he was smart enough to turn back when he realized something wasn’t right. I passed another runner along the way, and we chatted for a minute, but I soon left her behind as well. When I was about 30 minutes out of the checkpoint, I ran out of water. I didn’t actually know how far out I still was, but I kept telling myself it couldn’t be too much further. When I thought I was never going to get there, I decided to give the call, just too see if I could tell how far away I was. Well, lo and behold, my call was answered from right around the corner and I had reached the next checkpoint.

I fueled up and filled my bottles and set off again, ready to climb back up Powderface and come back down the other side. My crew had told me they were calling it a day, which was fine. They had had a long day out there waiting around for me, so I didn’t mind that they wanted to go. Up, up I climbed, then down the steep technical return to the parking lot where the next checkpoint was set up. Something happened along the way though. As often happens to me in a long race, I hit a low patch. I wasn’t even too far out from the checkpoint, but the negative part of my brain started taking over. I was tired, I wasn’t having fun, I was frustrated and mad at myself for making a mistake and now not being able to run the long course, I wanted to be done, I never wanted to do anything like this again, all of the negative self talk was happening and I decided I was going to drop out at the next checkpoint. Just as I had made this decision, I came around a corner, and there was my crew standing on the trail waiting for me, cheering me on. I started holding back the tears and told them I was thinking about dropping, but now that they were there I wasn’t sure any more. They encouraged me, and the wonderful volunteers at the checkpoint got me some food and some water. I was still waffling a little bit when one of the volunteers said “Well, you’ve gone this far, you might as well finish it off”. That was what finally did it for me, so off I went for the last leg. I am quite sure that had my crew not been there, my day would have been over, and I am also quite sure that had that happened, I would have regretted it.

I felt a renewed sense of energy setting off on the last leg. I had one giant climb left, and then after that it was clear sailing. I had been dreading that climb, and it was part of the reason I had been thinking about dropping. Once I got to it though, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been anticipating. I got to the top and then ran pretty much the rest of the way in. I suddenly felt great again, and had no problem finishing off the leg. My mother was waiting for me at the finish line, always my biggest cheerleader, and I was done.

IMG_4353

I always think I learn something from each race I run. This time there were a couple of things. The first lesson I already knew, but it was good to be reminded of, and as I often find, running is a good metaphor for life in general. This lesson is that whenever you hit a really low spot, if you can make it through to the other side , things always look better. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to see the other side, but it is always there, you just have to fight through. The second lesson I learned was to trust my instincts. Up there on that ridge, I knew it wasn’t right, but since we kept seeing the pink flagging tape (and I still don’t know what that tape was supposed to be marking), I kept going. My instincts were right and I should have turned back. But I didn’t. And that’s ok, because I learned a good lesson. Oh, and that guy that disappeared on us at the top of the ridge when we were looking for the trail, well we found out later that he found the trail but rather than spend 2 minutes coming back to tell us, he just kept going. So, thank you unknown runner for that bit of sportsmanship.

As my friend Majo said to me later, any day in the mountains is a good day. And, it was a good day, just not the day I had planned. And I’ll be back to tackle the 50 miles another time. Just keep moving forward.

 

 

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness. We hear that term a lot in endurance sports. People say “it’s as much mental as it is physical”. Maybe so, but what is mental toughness? Some call it perseverance, tenacity, or determination. My husband says I’m just plain old stubborn. Maybe so. Is this something you’re born with, or something you cultivate over time? Can you train yourself to be mentally tough? I think mental toughness is that certain something that allows us to keep on pushing through, even when everything inside you is screaming to stop. I do think some people are born with a little more grit than others, but I also think being mentally tough is something we can cultivate and grow, something we can train ourselves to have more of. Without it, I really don’t think most people would be able to finish long endurance events. At the first sign of discomfort, they’d simply quit. I also think mental toughness is situational…a person may be a force to contend with in business, but not in sports, and vice versa.

We all know how to train our bodies to meet the demands of our sport…we listen to a coach, we follow a written plan, we go to the gym, we do hill repeats and sprints, we go run and then run some more. I don’t think, however, that becoming mentally tough is something that most endurance runners consciously train. It is not written in the training program or even something that is quantifiable. It is just something that happens. Every time you set the alarm for some ungodly early morning hour and get up when it goes off, gulp down some coffee, and set off for your workout of choice, you are growing it. When it is cold and windy and raining, and you go for your run anyway, you are getting stronger. When you’ve been out running on the trails for hours and there is the option of taking a trail that is a little bit shorter to get back to your car, but you take the longer one instead, you are cultivating mental toughness. Whatever it may be…you’re tired, it is hot, it is cold, you’ve worked all day, you’ve been up all night with a baby, you just plain old don’t want to, but you lace up your running shoes and go out anyway, you are becoming more mentally tough.

Come race day is when we can see just how mentally tough we have become. In any ultra marathon I have done, there always seems to come a low point, a point where I am tired and I just don’t want to be out there anymore. Once, about 80k into a particularly difficult 100k, I was done, really done. I was all by myself, it was the middle of the night, I was exhausted, and I found myself at the bottom of yet another hill after a string of endless hills. I just sat down on a rock and cried. It had not been an easy day and I didn’t think I could do it. After awhile I realized though, that I had no choice but to do it. I could do it. I had trained for it, and I could do it. I just had to wipe my tears, stand up, and get going. So I picked myself up, climbed that hill, and finished the race. I think our mental toughness is what allows us to keep pushing through situations like that, to push through fatigue and discomfort, to silence the “I can’t” and replace it with “I can”. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly times when the couch wins, when I hit the snooze button, when I talk myself out of that last hill repeat, but I think that’s ok too, as long as we get out there more times than not. But it happens when our legs or lungs are yelling at us, when that voice inside our head is telling us to stop, to turn around, to take the shortcut, to go back to sleep, that we can’t do it and we silence the voice with I can, I will, I need to, I am going to. This is how we grow that mental fortitude that allows us to be successful at whatever we are trying to do, to become “tough as nails”. So, next time you persevere all the way through a tough workout, go out there when you’d rather be on the couch, or silence the excuses inside your head, know that come next time, come the next tough training session, come the next long endurance race, know that you are doing yourself a favour and making your likelihood of success much larger. You don’t have to want to do it, you just have to do it. Just keep moving forward.

IMG_0884