Escape from the Jungle, Belize

*blows the cobwebs off* Hi friends! Yes, I know its been an awfully long time since I last wrote here, but I’m here now so that’s what counts, right? So many things have happened since I last wrote…I ran a bunch of races, I finally completed a 100 miler, I had a big adventure in Belize, and lets not forget the global pandemic where we all have had to radically adjust our lifestyles and learn a whole new language…COVID-19, social distancing, shelter in place, etc etc etc. But I’m not here today to talk pandemic, I’m here to tell you about my big adventure in Belize that took place earlier this year.

After I finished my 100 miler in late October, I was getting antsy because I did not have anything else lined up after that. As I was browsing facebook one day I saw that a racing friend of mine was signed up for a jungle adventure in Belize called Escape From the Jungle. I was immediately intrigued. This was a race format I had never seen before….part ultramarathon, part adventure race, all self sufficient, like really self sufficient….sourcing your own food and water for the duration of the race and setting up your own camps all while navigating with map and compass. While the €5000 price tag did give me some pause, I justified it by telling myself I would have a week of special forces training before the actual race, so it would totally be worth it.

In the weeks leading up to the race, there was very little information forthcoming from the race director Shirley Thompson, who had previously been at the helm of the Jungle Marathon race in Brazil. The race pack on the website was scant and had obviously been cobbled together from the Jungle Marathon race info, and not written anew for the new Escape race. Oh well, I told myself, I have done jungle races before, not a problem. The only other information the racers were provided came from a couple of newsletters, also providing very scant information. There was a kit list on the website, and a totally different kit list in one on the newsletters, and a lot of confusion in the facebook group page that had been set up for the competitors. Oh well I told myself, I have done other jungle races before, not a problem.

As the race started getting closer, I started getting more and more nervous simply because of all the confusion and the lack of information, and conflicting information. Nobody seemed to have the same information regarding kit, and some people even had the wrong information regarding dates! I kept telling myself it would be fine, and off I went to Belize.

On the morning of the pick-up,  the 14 competitors and several of the medics all met at the airport in Placencia to board a school bus for the drive to the training camp. There was a lot of nervous energy and a lot of talk about all the confusion and lack if information leading up to that moment. After several hours on the bus we pulled up to a farm in the jungle and were told we were here! But wait….where was the training facility? Where were the special forces members waiting to whip us into shape? Where was the race director and the race team? Turns out everything we were promised about the training week had been false…there was no training facility, there was just this farm on the edge of the jungle. There were no special forces members, there was just a guy called Marcus, who yes did know a lot about the jungle and how to survive in it, but was no special forces member. There was not even a race director….we got off the bus and were told by the medics that Shirley had taken ill and was not to be joining us. Where then was the assistant race director and the race team? Turns out there wasn’t any of that either. There was Marcus and his assistant, there was the group of medics, and there were the competitors, all wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. 


Team “Two and a Half Women”

I won’t go into a ton of details about the training we received, but let’s just say it was severely lacking. I know Marcus did the best he could and he does know his stuff, but he’s not special forces. He was also never given the training schedule that we had been given, so he was making it up on the fly. He also expected us to have a different skill set than the bunch of lycra-clad runners who showed up at his farm. But there was nobody in charge. The training we were getting was not the training we needed. There was a lot of confusion and tension. The competitors were feeling nervous, frustrated, and unprepared. Marcus was feeling frustrated because we were not what he expected. The medics were feeling frustrated because we expected them to know what was going and and they didn’t know any more than anyone else. Plans kept changing, nothing was as was promised to us, and Marcus was having to make adjustments on the fly when it became clear that we were not the highly skilled adventurers he was expecting.

As the morning of the race dawned, everyone was feeling nervous and unsure. With the disorganization continuing, we finally got away several hours after the expected departure time to drive to the start of the race atop the highest mountain in the region, where we would spend the night. The drive was an adventure in itself, leaving the highway for steep dirt roads that turned to mud as rain began to fall. When the trucks had gone as far as possible, the rest of the way was on foot to our home for the night atop the mountain. Here the teams were paired up with our local guides who were to accompany us along the race route….great guys who know the jungle well, but also not the special forces instructors we were promised. My team consisted of myself, Robin, the only other woman in the race, and Jason, a man I was already acquainted with from the Jungle Ultra in Peru last year. Our guide was to be a young local guy called Osmin. The guides were being sent with us not to help us in any way, but just to make sure we were safe and not doing anything super stupid and risky. We also finally got a look at the map and the co-ordinates for the first check point, which we were to reach by the end of the second day. It looked like the navigation from the start to the first check point would be pretty straight forward…simply follow the trail down to the river and then follow the river until the bridge, where we would find the check point. No problem.


After a cold, windy night in our hammocks, we were up in the dark to get ready for the first day. There were 6 teams with a staggered start so we wouldn’t all be jammed together at the first big obstacle, a 200 foot waterfall rappel. The first part of the route was actually marked, the only part of the entire race that would be. Off we went down, down, down the mountain on a steep, technical, muddy trail through the jungle. After several hours we came to the waterfall. Originally we were to set the ropes ourselves and maneuver our own way down, but with the lack of experience from the majority of the racers, Marcus decided it would be in everybody’s best interest to get to the waterfall first and set the ropes to make sure everybody got down safely. One team was still at the waterfall when we got there, so we had a bit of a wait before it was our turn. I have to say I was terrified! Not only did we have to rappel down the fall, but we had to fashion our own seat harnesses out of a webbing strap. This was one of the few useful things we had learned in our training week, and I made sure I had practiced it and knew it well! As I sat there waiting for my turn, my panic began mounting. I was so scared. Finally, at long last, it was my turn. I made my harness, got hooked up to the ropes, took a big breath, and stepped over the edge. Without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever done! However, I did it, and once I got started, I immediately started laughing because it was so fun!!! Once that hurdle was over, came the horror of the river.


Big breath, then over I go!

I knew it was going to be a really long day when I took my first step onto the rocks along the side of the river and immediately went down, the first fall of about a million billion. I have never in my life walked on something so slippery! For the rest of that day, and all of the next day, and even half of the third day the options for following the river were walking on the super slick rocks, bushwhacking through the super thick jungle alongside the river, or swimming. In many places the river was shallow and the cliffs were steep, so the only option was walking on the rocks. I can’t even begin to describe this nightmare…every single step had to be carefully planned and plotted, the rocks so slick that even when you thought you had a solid place to step, down you’d go. By the end of the first day my legs were a solid mass of bruises from smashing down upon the rocks again and again. The option of hacking through the jungle was no better…it was hot and the jungle was super thick, and the cliffs were steep. Most of the time, this was no option at all. Finally we decided that whenever we could, the best option would be swimming. Luckily we could all swim, because after all the sketchy race pack had said that no swimming would be necessary, that all water would be shallow enough to wade through. How wrong was that!! On the second day we spent a solid 10 hours in the river…wading, falling, swimming, going through rapids and over waterfalls, hauling ourselves in and out of the water dozens of times. It was exhausting. We were cold, we were tired, we were hungry.


The only food we were allowed to bring with us was a small quantity of rice, which was our main source of food. Yes, we did manage to catch a few fish after we stopped to camp for the night, and we did cook up a pot of river snails, but compared to the amount of energy we were expending, it was not near enough, so we were hungry. Add this lack of calories to being immersed in a river all day, a sure recipe for hypothermia. There was more than one time when Robin and I, both being a bit on the small side, found ourselves shivering and needing to lay out in the sun for a bit while eating a few bites of rice that was soaked in river water to try and get our body temperatures up. Not exactly what you’d expect from a jungle race! All of this being submerged in the water also made for a lot of wet gear! Because I am such an over planner and over thinker, my own gear was actually fine and for the most part stayed dry….I had everything in individual dry bags, which were all inside a larger dry bag, all wrapped up in a plastic trash bag. The others in my group were not so fortunate, and ended up with sopping wet sleeping gear and no dry clothes for night time. Jason’s sleeping bag was a lost cause and he ended up sleeping on the ground by the fire for all the remaining nights….not ideal for sure!

One of the most frustrating parts of the second day was not knowing when or if we were going to make it to the check point. We knew that was the goal, and even though we had a map we had no references to tell us where we were, how far we had gone, or how far we had to go to reach the bridge. We knew we had to leave the cliffs and the hills behind, so every time we came around another bend in the river, we were expecting and hoping to see the end of the hills, but every time we came around another bed in the river, all we saw was more of the same. More river, more hills, more cliffs. When we finally decided to stop for the night I don’t think I have ever been more exhausted, but even though we were stopped we still did not get to rest. Jungle had to be hacked out on the cliffs to make room for hammocks to be hung, fire had to be started, wood collected, things hung out to dry, attempts to catch fish or forage for food, cooking the food, and filling and purifying water bottles all had to be done before finally collapsing into the hammock for the night, then up at first light to start it all over again.

Day three started much the same as the day before, wake up, eat a bit of rice, break camp, then back to the river, on and on down the endless river. By about mid-day Osmin suggested that we leave the river and try and take a short cut through the jungle to reach the check point. We all agreed that this would be a good idea, mainly because we were all desperate to get out of the water. By this point it was also clear that we were not going to be able to finish without Osmin helping us a great deal more than was originally intended, but we were fine with this. So, with Osmin leading the way, off we set through the jungle, hacking our way through, occasionally finding a bit of trail, occasionally finding a few bites of edible plants. After a few hours we came to an old abandoned logging road and Osmin knew exactly where we were. We were all feeling pretty low but his point…hot, tired, hungry, frustrated, and a little bit defeated because we were a full day late making it to the checkpoint. Just when we were at our very lowest, Osmin had us take a turn…right into the most beautiful citrus orchard I had ever seen in my life. Oranges!! Beautiful ripe, juicy oranges hanging on trees all around us. I have never tasted anything so delicious in all my life….we sat there on the ground in that orchard and stuffed ourselves with oranges, juice streaming down our chins and hands, and suddenly the whole mood changed. We had food in our bellies, and right at the bottom of this orchard was the checkpoint! As we walked down through the orchard, a truck pulled up behind us with a very irate orchard owner in it. He was none too pleased about us trespassing on his land, and was threatening to make us go back the way we came to leave. We managed to talk him around to letting us just continue the short way to the gate, and as we were leaving and beginning the short walk on the road to get to the bridge, he pulled up to us again, only this time he was full of apologies for his previous behaviour and offered us up a big bag of oranges and a ride in his truck the short rest of the way to the bridge, all of which we happily accepted!


As we got to the checkpoint, we learned that only 2 teams had made it there by the second day, and they had only done so by having 18 hour days, without really stopping to get food or sleep. The most amazing thing though, was the the remaining 4 teams, all taking a different route, arrived at the checkpoint literally within 30 minutes of one another. One of the teams opted to leave right away and make their way to the much closer second check point and camp there that night, while the other 3 teams, including ours, opted to camp near the river and the first checkpoint and head for the second one in the morning. We walked a short way so we would be away from the highway, and set up a nice little camp. It was still early, so we spent some time getting the hammocks slung nicely and tried to get some fish, though with no luck. Osmin had gone off to charge his phone at the nearby home of a friend, and when he came back he had the best of all things….an iguana that he had sling-shotted out of a tree for us to eat for dinner!! We quickly got a good fire going while Robin took the iguana to the river to gut it for us. I got to work with my machete and cut some sticks to use as a spit, and then got Mr. Iguana dressed and spitted, which left Jason in charge of the cooking. We had a virtual feast that night…who knew an iguana could taste so good!


Mmmm….so tasty!

We set off early the next morning to check point two…this section was easy mode, first a jaunt down the Hummingbird Highway, then walking on some side roads, and finally an old dirt track. By late morning we had already reached the checkpoint. After collecting the coordinates for the next checkpoint and a short stop to study the map and decide upon a route, we were on the move again. The route finding looked easy on the map…go around the lake and then follow the creek out to the Manatee river. In reality though, we were in for another nightmare because what the map failed to show us was first of all, a massive cave system, and second of all, the steep, sharp limestone cliffs along the creek that made simply following it impossible. It very soon became clear that it would be much more difficult than we thought. We did manage to get around the lagoon, but then in trying to locate the creek, and a way to follow the creek we ended up going around and around in circles in the cave system. In caves, out of caves, backtracking, circling around for hours. The only good thing about this time was the troupe of spider monkeys who seemed jus as excited to see us as we were to see them. During this time we were joined by one of the other teams, a duo from Japan, both of whom I had met and raced with at the Peru Jungle Ultra. Even with both of our guides helping, it still took a tremendously long time to find our way. The jungle was thick and dense, it was extremely hot, humid, and buggy, and everything kept jumping out to try and trip me. I do have to say after tripping for what felt like the millionth time, I did have a little tantrum. Not my finest moment for sure, but certainly everyone else understood and they just let me have my little angry cry.


So over it!

By now the afternoon was wearing on and we were not much closer to finding our way out. Hiro, one of the Japanese men, was starting to feel the heat, exhaustion, and dehydration. His partner took his pack for him, and I went ahead to the guides to tell them we needed to stop for the night very soon. They soon located a lovely little spot beside the creek where we made camp for the night. After a little rest and some food, Hiro thankfully started feeling much better. After a nice little bath in the creek and a chance to catch up on fluids, I started feeling more like myself again too, and we actually had a very nice evening there by the creek. We started out again early the next morning, with more of the same, hacking through thick jungle, wading in the creek when we could, just moving forward as best as we could. Soon though, we found the trail to take us away from the creek, back into some farmland and roads that wold take us to the Manatee River. We cut through another orchard on someone’s farm that was teeming with fruit, but after our encounter with the previous orchard owner we were a bit more careful. The guides went ahead to talk to the farm owners, and we were given the all clear to pass, even given as many bananas as we could eat as we passed through the farm yard. We were also told that all of the other teams had passed by that way, so we knew we were on the right track, even though we were dead last. After we left the farm we were back on the dirt roads, and after a bit of navigating we found ourselves at checkpoint 3 by mid afternoon.

Because we were so far behind and had no hope of doing the entire course in the 5 day limit, the last four teams were all driven from checkpoint 3 to a place where we would be able to reach the end in the time allotted. The other two teams had already been taken, and so, after being filled up with snacks by the wonderful medics, my team along with team Japan and our guides were loaded up into a truck and taken to a spot along a different river and dropped off….but not without first stopping at a local tamale stand to fill our bellies! As we were being dropped off, the skies opened up with the kind of downpour where you are instantly soaked through. Luckily for us, our guides knew of a little short cut, however the short cut just happened to be through the land of a known local drug king pin. The road we were walking on was paved so that planes full of contraband from Columbia can land there! The first people we came to, the guides stopped to have a chat with them to make sure we could safely pass. Also luckily for us, the man they stopped to talk to was a childhood friend of Osmin! He told us he would have to speak to the boss to make sure he would allow it, but for us to carry on for now, so off we went. Before long we came to the edge of the property and out onto a dock jutting into the lagoon where there was a big palapa to shelter us from the rain. Now we had a big decision to make because the next part of the course was a 2km lagoon crossing. 

What we had to decide was if we wanted to cross the lagoon now, with darkness about to fall, or to find a place to camp for the night and cross in the morning. After a long debate, we decided to cross right then rather than wait for the morning for a couple of reasons…one reason was the rain…though it wasn’t raining right then, the sky was heavy and without a doubt rain would surely fall during the night. Secondly, there weren’t exactly many good places to hang a hammock there on the drug lord’s beach. We could have hung them in the palapa, but then we would be over the water and it would likely be cold. Thirdly, at the moment we set off, the lagoon was very calm and we worried that if we waited until morning the water would be rough and make the crossing more difficult. As it turns out, this third point did not matter because very soon after we set off, the wind picked up and the water became very rough. 

We had been told that the water was only chest deep and we would be able to wade the entire way across. It certainly started out shallow enough, but because neither Robin nor I are very tall, the water was soon over our heads. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim with a fully loaded backpack on your back, but let me tell you it is very difficult. Once the water got too deep for Robin and I to touch bottom, I clung onto Hiro’s pack and Robin hung onto Jason’s and together we made our way across the lagoon, with them just barely touching bottom and us kicking as best we could with shoes and packs on. As it got darker and darker we lost sight of the peninsula we were heading for. Thankfully there was a blinking light at the end of it, so we just kept heading for the light with super slow but steady forward progress. Finally, after well more than 2 hours of this slow and steady progress, we reached the other side!! We were done! We had finished the race! We pulled ourselves out of the water and found….nothing. No finish line. No onlookers. No medals. No nothing. No cell service to call someone and tell them we were done. No place to make a camp because it was all private land with private homes. Just a huge, anticlimactic nothing. Super, super disappointing. 


“Finish line” photo

After getting past the fact that we were actually finished and nobody was there for us, we needed to act and make a plan. We had been in the water for over 2 hours, we were soaked and exhausted and the wind was howling, making us feel very, very cold. We decided to head to a house that had some lights on and see if we could borrow a phone to call the medics for a pick up. Turns out the home was owned by a lovely woman named Nancy who just so happened to own a little hotel right there on the point. As fate would have it, we were able to book ourselves some rooms and spend the night inside her lovely little hotel. In the morning the medics caught up with us and we waited for the last team to cross the lagoon and make it to the finish before being driven back to what turned out to be a very luxurious hotel for our after party.

The upshot of the whole event is this. Yes, the concept of the race is very good….take a bunch of inexperienced people, give them some intense survival training, then set them loose in the jungle with very limited supplies to find their own way to the finish line. Was it a really great adventure? Yes, it sure was. Was it what any of us signed up for? Not really. Where were the special forces instructors? Where was the special forces training we were promised? Where, in fact, did all our money go? That part is a mystery for sure, because most definitely this race cost a ton of money to enter, yet was done on what felt like a shoestring budget, right from camping in Marcos’ yard, to him being the one trainer, to being crammed with 9 people in a small pick-up truck for the 6 hour drive to the start and back from the finish to the hotel, right to putting 4 people into a hotel room with 3 beds and not even buying us a drink at the afterparty. And so many other things that went wrong or were not as promised when we all signed up. I did have a really great time to be sure, but honestly, had I known what was actually going to happen I would not have signed up for this race. The limited amount of training meant that the race was very dangerous. There was more than one time when I thought to myself just how much peril I was in. Proper pre-race information, and proper training at a real training facility with real survival trainers could have mitigated so much of the danger. I mean, if someone was a non-swimmer and read the race information and saw that one did not need to know how to swim for the race, then showed up and was expected to not only spend 3 days navigating a deep and at times dangerous river, and end by swimming 2 k across a lagoon? Well, their race would have been over before it even started. Would I recommend this race to anyone else? Absolutely not. Not unless a lot of things change, but I can see from the website that she is still advertising it exactly the same, same promises of special forces instructors, same promise of being able to wade through any water encountered, same misinformation, same exorbitant price.

One final note, the two teams who finished the entire route, doing 18 hour days on minimal food and sleep have my utmost respect. There is no way I could have navigated that river in the darkness, as they had. These 4 men came into the race with much, much more survival knowledge and experience than the rest of us, and showed that it actually can be completed, so to these gents I say again, well done. For the average person with limited survival knowledge however, it was just downright dangerous, and I actually resent being put into that position.

If you have managed to read this far, I thank you! This ended up being much longer than I intended, and to be honest I left out a heck ton of details. So many more things happened that if I had of included them all, this would be 3 times as long!!! So, thank you for reading, stay safe and well, and just keep moving forward!

Be Brave!

What’s that thing they say about bravery? It’s being afraid and doing it anyway. I’ve had quite a few adventures of late….I went to Peru and ran the Jungle Ultra for the fifth time. I climbed a mountain on a via ferrata and then slept in a glass pod hanging off the side of the mountain. I spent a few weeks in Cusco by myself and explored the countryside around the city on foot. I did a 5 day hike with my husband David where we independently circumnavigated Mount Ausangate, with me being in charge of the navigation. I did a couple of solo backcountry camping trips. And with all these things, the words I heard the most from people were “you’re so brave”. 

Really though, I don’t think of myself as brave. I’m not sure what I am. Yes, a lot of these things pushed me outside my comfort zone. Is that being brave? I’m not sure. I guess in some people’s books that’s what bravery is. I also have to wonder sometimes if being female and doing things by myself is what makes people think I am brave. If a man went on a backpacking trip by himself for a night would people call him brave? I wonder. Maybe some men can weigh in on this in the comments. 

I’ve touched before on how we must go outside of our comfort zones to attain personal growth. I’ve also talked about how doing things that make me anxious allows me to have some control over my anxiety, rather than the other way around. In fact, that is the reason I started doing semi-extreme things to begin with. But a funny thing has happened along the way, as things do, and this is the braver I am, the braver I get. The more things I do, the less things that scare me. 

As I mentioned, recently, I decided to take myself backcountry camping. This is something I have been wanting to do for a long time. Like years. But I always had an excuse….I didn’t have the right gear, I didn’t have anyone to go with, I didn’t want to take time away from my training, I didn’t know where to go, the weather is bad, etc etc etc. Basically, I was just scared, scared of the unknown, scared to try something new, something outside my comfort zone. But I made up my mind, this was going to be the summer I went backcountry camping. No more excuses. So, with some trepidation, off I went. Well, first I had a warm-up in May with my friend Jo and my daughter Clare in Oregon. We only got a little lost, and the snow we ran into was only thigh deep, but we had fun. Then I did the Ausangate trek. I was pretty nervous going into it about the navigation part because, as anyone who has ever been with me when navigating has been a thing knows, it is not my strong suit. I’m getting better, but I’m still pretty weak at it. Turns out it was all good….yes, there were a few places where we took a bit of an alternate route, but we were never actually lost, and we made our way around it with no problems. So, in light of these things, I decided that it was time to take myself into the backcountry of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. 

I was a little nervous as I set off, but actually, I got along just fine. I found my trail, I navigated a little bit when it got confusing, I found my campsite, I set up my tent and filtered some water, it poured rain but I found a nice dry spot under a sprawling tree to sit, I cooked my food, I explored a bit during a break in the rain, I slept, then did it all in reverse. And I loved it. I loved it so much I did it again a couple of weeks later.  As I was going out the door David told me he loved how brave I am. There’s that word again.

This time I went a bit further afield to a more remote campsite. As I was going, I passed a man and his son who were fishing in one of the lakes along the way. I had a little chat with him, telling him where I was going etc, and he looked at me and said “Solo? Wow, that’s very brave.” And then to his son “Look at this lady…she’s awesome!” I don’t know about either one of those, I mean, if I was a man would he have said either of those things, and why does that matter? But I digress. When I got to the campsite, I found it to be completely deserted. I was the only one camping there. I thought I might be nervous staying there all alone, but turns out I was not. I loved the peace and tranquility of the place, with the beautiful lake and the towering mountains. Being brave led me to this exquisite experience. The only thing I was nervous of was the porcupine guarding the outhouse!

So, what makes someone brave? I don’t feel brave, I just like to push myself outside my comfort zone. Maybe that’s bravery, I don’t know. It’s easy to see bravery in other people….I see people doing brave things all the time…having adventures, taking up new activities, standing up for themselves or for someone else, making difficult decisions, sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and facing the day is a brave thing to do.  But it all comes around to this…in order to grow, we must get outside our comfort zones, we must do things that make us a little bit or a lot afraid, we must be brave. Don’t languish in the comfort zone, be brave!

Just keep moving forward.

Bouncing back from failure.

As you may or may not know. I recently decided to tackle the Montane Spine Race. This is a race in the UK, 430-something kilometers along the trail known as the Pennine Way over the course of 7 days in January. I trained, I obsessively researched and bought gear, then returned it and bought better gear. I bought a GPS unit, maps, and a compass and learned to navigate. I counted out trail snacks into 500 calorie portions, agonized over footwear and clothing, packed, and repacked my bags, and finally set off to England for the start of the race. Where I failed spectacularly and DNF’d on the very first day, just 42 short kilometers into the race.

Kit check

Yes, that’s right, just 11 hours in my race was over. I was racing with my friend, and somehow our pace was so slow that the safety team strongly advised us to stop, saying that we would be a danger not only to ourselves, but to anyone who may need to come to our rescue if it came to that. The weather conditions were horrific…winds gusting up to 115 kph, driving rain, cold temperatures. However, it was the same for everyone. Just like navigating was the same for everyone, though not knowing the course we were having to stop and check more often than a lot of people, plus the shoes I was wearing did not have the right kind of traction for the wet, slippery limestone slabs that make up much of this section of the trail. None of these are excuses because, as I said, it was the same for everyone, but all of this together meant our pace was glacial slow. Some members of the safety team met us at a road crossing, and as soon as they told us to get into their car so we could have a chat, I knew it was not looking good for us. Although they did tell us we could continue if we really wanted to, they strongly discouraged it, also pointing out that even if we carried on we were likely to time out at the next checkpoint. 

And so, just like that, the dream of completing the Spine Race came to a thudding halt. My body and mind were still in it….I wasn’t even tired yet, but I was being told I should not continue. I have DNF’d in races before, but never one of this magnitude. Never one with this amount of investment, in time, money, and emotion. Never one where I had put myself out there quite this much, and while everyone around me has been supportive, reassuring me that I made the right choice, and giving me their compassion, I can’t help but feel embarrassed, like I’ve let people down. Like I’ve let myself down! All in all, it was a massive failure. We all have failures in our lives from time to time, and sometimes it is easier to define ourselves more by our failures than our successes, to dwell on them and even let them take over our lives. I know I’ve been guilty of this myself on more than one occasion.

This time, however, I’ve decided to not let myself be defined by this failure, not to dwell on it, to move on immediately. And maybe it is just because it hasn’t hit me yet and I’ve not had time to process this whole thing, but I actually think I’m ok! Before the sweat had even dried I was thinking of a plan B, a way to make the best of a bad situation. I feel like I have moved on, but I know I will still have moments going forward where I have bad feelings….disappointment of course, anger, regret, all of the negative things associated with failing at something.  And I think it is ok to feel all of these things, not only ok, but completely normal to feel them as well. Ok to feel them, but not dwell on them. To keep moving forward, keep looking forward, setting a new goal and moving towards that. 

After a set back like this, I think it is really important to remind that you are not a failure just because you have failed at this one thing,  to remind yourself that even though you haven’t been successful, at least you’ve been brave enough to put yourself out there. It is easy to never fail if you never challenge yourself. If you never even try something, there is never the opportunity to grow, to learn from your mistakes.  It’s not easy to look failure in the face and move on from it, but it is possible, and also incredibly important to do so. Your feelings are valid, but don’t let them define you. Pick yourself up, set a new goal, and move on! I’ve got it permanently written right on my arm….just keep moving forward!!

Plan B…. a 120 km canal walk

The Next Big Thing

One thing about me is I’m always searching for the next big thing. There are always races to run, adventures to have. Since my last blog post, I went to Kenya and did a big thing, running in Beyond The Ultimate’s For Rangers Ultra, covering 230km over 5 days through some of Kenya’s most beautiful and game-rich conservation areas. What an experience that was! Every day we saw scores of animals: antelope, giraffes, zebras, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, ostriches and on and on, sometimes from really close up. I even got to pet an orphaned baby rhino named Mei Mei. An unbelievable experience…one of those things they call once in a lifetime that truly is once in a lifetime. Add a vacation onto that which included a safari and some lazy days on the beach at the Indian Ocean, and you could say August was a pretty good month!

My next big thing after that wasn’t quite as big, but it was yet another try at the elusive 100 mile distance. I really thought I could do it this time. I was so hungry for it, but alas, once again it was not to be. I’m not sure what went wrong, but my right knee started hurt fairly early on, and it just continued to get more and more painful as I went on. Finally after 115km, I decided to pack it in and live to run another day. There will be other 100 milers, and one of these times I am going to get it!!

So, now I am on to my next really big thing. This one is scaring the crap out of me. One month from today I will be toeing the starting line in Edale, UK for the start of the 2019 Montane Spine Race. So if you don’t know about this race, it is about 430km long with a time limit of 168 hours, or 7 days. Unlike the other multi-day races I have done where there is a set distance every day and the clock stops while you are in camp, during the Spine Race, the clock never stops and there are no set distances. There are 5 checkpoints where they feed you and give you a place to sleep, but other than that, you’re basically on your own, going as far as you want between sleeping, sleeping trailside or in any shelter you may come across, eating when and where you can, and just trying to get as many kilometres behind you each day as possible. And oh, did I mention that you also need to navigate? And that it’s winter? And daylight is limited to just a handful of hours each day? I’m terrified. I waffle each day between thinking I can get it done, to wondering what the heck was I thinking because I’ll never be able to do this! Whatever is going to happen though, I will give it my all, just like I always do.

So lately I’ve been spending all my free time (and money!!) researching and buying up gear, studying maps, reading everything I can lay my eyes on about the Pennine Way, making lists of places to potentially sleep or buy food, stressing over which shoes to wear, and of course training, training, training, all with an 8kg pack on my back. I think I’ve done all I can. I think I’m as ready as I can be. But I’m still scared.

There’s something to be said about doing things that scare you, things that push you outside your comfort zone. We’ve all probably seen the meme that says outside your comfort zone is where growth happens. I happen to believe that is true. When I’m preparing for an event like this that’s super scary, my anxiety levels invariably rise to sometimes intolerable levels. I cry a lot, I feel anxious, I feel scared, I feel like running away, I feel unprepared, but in the end, I always fight through it and show up at that starting line. And even though it’s made me feel very uncomfortable sometimes for weeks, I’m never sorry I did it, even when it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. There’s always something to be learned from it, not only something to be learned from the race itself, but also something to be learned about myself, about how I handle stress and anxiety, how I handle success and failure, how I handle adversity. This is the growth. If I never went there in the first place, the growth would never happen. Plus I just like doing really cool things.

So go ahead. Find your next big thing. Do something that scares you. Push yourself outside your comfort zone. Grow a little, or maybe a lot, and have some fun adventures along the way.

Just keep moving forward.

The One About Mental Illness

Hi friends! So, I realize its been awhile since I wrote anything new on here, and it’s been hanging over my head for quite some time. Races have come and gone with no reports written, seasons have changed, and life has just marched on, as it tends to do.

I’m going to share the secret reason with you regarding why I have not written a blog in so long. It’s something I have sort of touched on before, but never really gone into in any kind of detail. You see I have this thing called anxiety that is with me on pretty much a daily basis, and this other thing that visits me periodically called depression. Just putting these words out on my screen has cause an exponential jump in my anxious feelings because these are things I tend to keep pretty much hidden from most people who are not part of my inner circle. As much as mental illness gets sort of talked about these days, there is still a stigma attached to it because, quite frankly, unless you live with it or are very close to someone who has it, it is very difficult to understand. And on top of that, it also means something very different to each individual who has it…my anxiety might not feel the same as someone else’s. My depression might hit me in a different way than yours. These things are so complex, and how we feel and how we deal with these feelings are so different for everyone.

I used to deal with my anxious feelings by eating. I’d eat my feelings, and then I would feel worse than ever. The more I ate my feelings, the worse I felt, and that would often signal the onset of depression, during which I would eat more. After many years of that, I realized that was not the way, and I switched over to exercise, and more specifically, running. Running is my meditation…the rhythm is soothing, and it gives me time alone with my thoughts to work things through. And while it does help, it is not the be all to end all in my battle with anxiety and depression. Counselling has also helped…acquiring tools to call upon when things feel bad. I have come to an uneasy acceptance with my anxiety. I realize it is never going to go away, but most of the time I can manage it.

The black dog that is depression is another story. He sneaks up on me when I am least expecting it, stealing all my ambition and motivation, and I sometimes spend days doing little more than lying on the couch watching Netflix, and eating, and sometimes drinking wine when I am in the throes of a depressive episode. This past winter was a particularly  bad one for me. There were a lot of stressful things going on around me which I was also a part of, but were out of my control, and despite my best effort, I just shut down. I didn’t go out, I didn’t see friends, pretty much the only thing that got me out the door most days was a run. It was a struggle on many days, but I did manage to keep up my training for the most part.

So, why am I deciding to share all of this now? I am actually feeling quite panicky about posting my struggles out there for the world to see, but I feel like it is important to not keep silent. According to the World Health Organization, 264 million people across the globe suffer from an anxiety disorder. In addition, over 300 million people worldwide will suffer from a major depressive episode sometime in their lives. As much as we might like to think we talk about mental illness, given these staggering numbers, I don’t think we talk about it enough. We still hide it, at least I know I do. And while it is really hard to help someone who keeps their condition hidden, we must still all make the effort to reach out to someone we know is struggling. If an acquaintance, or a friend, or a loved one starts acting differently, seems sad, is isolating themselves, or just doesn’t seem like themselves, talk to them. Even when they say they are fine, if they don’t seem fine, they probably aren’t. The important thing is being there for that person. Don’t abandon them because they are refusing your invitations or stop answering texts, and don’t take it personally when they keep saying no. Don’t pressure them to do things. Just keep in touch with them, let them know you’re there for them, be an nonjudgemental ear for listening or a shoulder to cry on. You probably can’t solve their problems, but you can let them know they are not alone.

If you’re reading this and you are suffering from anxiety or depression or anything else, you don’t need to suffer alone. Find that friend with the willing ear and strong shoulders. See your doctor. Muster up all your courage and go to counselling and actually do the work. Practice self care…run, go to yoga, take walks, eat healthy, meditate, do something that is just for you and makes you feel good. Maybe some days the best you can do is to bathe and get dressed. If you’re having a really rough day and that’s all you can manage, count that as a victory.

As far as how things are currently going for me, well, the back dog has disappeared for now for the most part, but the feral cat of anxiety is always around, waiting to pounce on me when I least expect it. I’m much more open about it to my inner circle these days, but I still like to try and manage it on my own. Mostly I can use the tools I have acquired to keep it under control, but at other times I am a big sobbing mess dealing with it in unhealthier ways like drinking, over eating, or online shopping. And for the really bad times there is medication. Sometimes just knowing I have the meds if I need them is all it takes. Finally, probably my strangest way of self soothing is something my family calls my “running away from home bag”. In my purse I keep a ziplock bag with my keys, my drivers license, and a credit card, while hidden away somewhere in my house is a big envelope full of cash, which I take out and count on stressful days. I don’t think I’m ever going to run away for real, but just having these things at the ready is very calming for me because in unpleasant situations, when my fight or flight reflex kicks in, my gut reaction is always flight. In fact, I have long since felt like running away to do races on the other side of the world is kind of like controlled flight. I can run away for a week or two and leave everything behind, and then when I come home I’m ready to face it all again.

So there, now you know my secrets. I know this blog post is not really about ultra-running, but in a way it kind of is because running really far is a great coping mechanism for me in dealing with my mental issues. I’d love to hear from you about your struggles and how you cope. Let’s talk about it!

Just keep moving forward!

I got interviewed!

A huge, huge thank you to Katie Campbell Spyrka, owner of the blog “Lessons in Badassery” for putting together this interview with me. Katie’s blog showcases “badass women in sport, fitness, and adventure”. To read more amazing interviews and articles and to follow this awesome blog, go to Lessons in Badassery

Carolin Botterill: Accidental Ultra Runner

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51-year-old ultra-runner and multi-day stage race specialist, Carolin Botterill, wasn’t always into running. It wasn’t until she was 36, and a mum of three, that she began the journey which would ultimately lead to her becoming an ultra-runner – accidentally – via a bid to get fit and lose weight. At first she walked, then she ran, and just kept running. Now, 17 years later, Carolin has completed some of the toughest multi-day ultras on the planet, taking her from the Arctic Circle to the Peruvian jungle.

In one of the most insightful interviews I’ve posted, Carolin shares her experiences with me, including the lengths she goes to in order to acclimatise to extreme heat and cold ahead of her ultra-events.

It wasn’t until your late thirties that you began running. How did your journey to ultra-runner come about?
Really what started the journey was a desire to lose weight. I had 3 kids under the age of 5, I was obese, and I was ready for change. I had been a chubby kid and teenager, and as an adult had rollercoaster dieted. With each baby I had gained more and more weight, and I came to the realisation that this wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I also wanted something different for my three daughters, for them not to have the same struggles I had with weight and food, and I knew I needed to make changes within myself for that to happen.

I began just by walking. I had always liked walking and it seemed a good place to start. Then the idea of running got into my head and wouldn’t go away. So, one day I set out for a run. I managed to run an entire 2 minutes before I had to stop. I persevered however, and my running journey began.

Was running and getting fit a struggle when you first started?
Yes, it was. As I mentioned, I had 3 kids under the age of 5 when I first started, so just physically getting out the door was a struggle on many days. Luckily I had (and still have!) a supportive husband, which made that struggle a bit easier. The fitness part was really less of a struggle, it just came progressively. As I began running, I was gradually able to go further and further without needing to stop and walk. There is a big hill about 2km from my house, and I still remember my moment of triumph when I was able to run all the way from my house to the top of that hill without stopping. It was a real milestone for me and was when my fitness really started to take off. The real struggle was, and always has been, the eating part of it. We are surrounded by all kinds of food and messages about food, and eating the right things consistently is hard! It is something I still struggle with today.

Did you ever envisage you’d be capable of such incredible feats of endurance?
Never! My blog is called Accidental Ultra Runner because I never in my life thought I would or planned on being an ultra runner. In fact, when I first started running I wasn’t even aware that such things even existed. The longest race I had ever heard of then was a marathon, and I even thought that was very far outside my abilities.

What was the first ultra you entered and how did you find it?
The first ultra I entered was a 50k in amongst the giant redwoods in California called Big Trees. It was so hard! I came in dead last, they kept the course open an extra ½ hour for me, and the sweeper ran me in. I also loved every minute of it, well, except for the part where I got poison oak.

Earlier this year you did the notoriously hard 230km-long Ice Ultra – how was this experience?
The Ice Ultra is a 5-day multi-stage race covering 230km above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. The event takes place in February of each year and is put on by Beyond the Ultimate race series. This race was very different from any I’ve ever done before because of both the temperature and the terrain, and the fact that the majority of it was done wearing snow-shoes. Not to mention sleeping outside in teepees with only a reindeer skin between me and the snow.

The below zero temperatures definitely made for a different kind of race, really with no room for error. For example, in a warm weather race, if you get tired or need to stop, it’s no problem, you just stop and rest or whatever you need to do. In the cold, however, you really cannot do this. Even if you feel warm while you’re moving, the second you stop you begin to cool down and it can become dangerous very quickly. There were a number of competitors who found this out on the very first day, getting frostbite on faces and fingers, who were unable to start on the second day. So this is a challenge, you have to keep moving basically at all times, and the proper gear is essential.

Photo Credit: Mikkel Beisner

I’m lucky because I did my training in the Rocky Mountains in winter, so I had ample opportunity to test out all of my gear in cold, snowy conditions. Most competitors did not have this luxury. My longest training run was 8 hours on a day when the high was -28C! On a day like that you quickly find out what is working for you and what is not. Just keeping your water from freezing up becomes a challenge. Because of this training I felt quite confident going in, at least that my gear was not going to let me down.

What were the highs and lows of the Ice Ultra?
The high for me at this race was seeing the stunning beauty of this part of the world, and meeting so many amazing, like-minded people from across the globe – the things I always love best at these kinds of events.

The only low point for me came at the end of the long stage… I was out for over 15 hours, and the last km or so of the stage involved slogging over a lake that had a layer of surface water, essentially knee-deep slush. Needless to say I got quite wet during that time. When I came across the finish line for the stage, I felt just fine, not cold, just glad to be done. I made my way into the semi-heated building they had available for us, started making myself some food, etc when very quickly I got very cold and became hypothermic. I’m still not sure why this happened, something about the warm blood leaving my core to help warm up my extremities, which had become very cold as a result of being in the wet slush or something. Anyway, the medics were on it right away, helping me to get into warm, dry clothes, ensconcing me in a giant down coat and pants, then inside a big plastic bag while bringing me warm things to drink. Even with all of that it took several hours before I was able to stop shivering. I’m used to becoming cold after a long day of running – it happens even when it’s not cold outside – but this was a pretty extreme and a little frightening. Once I finally got warmed up however, I was fine and was quite able to finish up the last day with no problem.

On the opposite spectrum you’ve done the super-hot Jungle Ultra in Peru 3 times
Well, I absolutely love this race. There is just something about it that makes me want to come back again and again. Yes, it can be very hot, very humid, very wet, very muddy, but all of these things add to the experience. This year I had both a high and low point on the same stage – stage 5, the Long One. This stage has both a long and a short course and after a 5:00 am start you must reach a certain point in the stage by 3:00 pm. The first two times I ran this race I didn’t make the time cut-off and had to run the short course. This year I made that time cut-off with just 2 minutes to spare, but I made it! That was definitely a high for me!

The low came a little bit later… while the short course of stage 5 takes you around a mountain to the finish line, the long course takes you over that same mountain. Going up the mountain, while difficult, was fine for me. I, along with my friend Jeff Lau, reached the top of the mountain just before darkness fell, therefore we were forced to make the treacherous journey down the other side of the mountain in the dark.

The trail is like nothing you’ve probably ever seen before – near vertical downhill sections of slick, greasy mud that went on seemingly forever. I honestly almost reached my breaking point on this section of the trail. It was pretty scary and dangerous and I can tell you that I fell more than once! At the time when I felt almost broken, instead of giving in to tears and despair though, I got really angry! I’m not sure what exactly I was angry at, but I was filled with it and the thought that this was not going to be my breaking point. The anger really helped fuel me and I picked up so much speed that Jeff had to ask me to slow down so as not to leave him behind in the dark. At that point I stopped and took a breath and let the anger drain away, but I not longer felt on the edge of breaking anymore either. I was able to take control of myself and my emotions and continue getting myself down the mountain. I can’t say I didn’t shed a few tears of relief once we got to the bottom though, because I most certainly did!

What kind of heat training did you do to prepare for the jungle?
I start heat training about 4-6 weeks before the race. My research tells me that it takes about 90 minutes a day for at least 4 weeks for the body to make the actual physiological changes to perform better in the heat. Because the jungle also has extremely high humidity, I try and prepare for that as well. So, I do 2 things: I set up a makeshift steam sauna, basically a tent with a kettle, where the temperature and humidity gets very high. I also have a home-made treadmill sauna….a treadmill enclosed by tarps with heaters and humidifiers, where the temperature gets up to the high 30’s Celsius. My routine becomes doing my workout, then sitting in the steam tent for 30-40 minutes, then spending an hour doing brisk walking on my treadmill with the heat on.  It may be a bit excessive, but I like to be as prepared as possible and I do think it makes a difference as I am really never bothered by the heat or humidity in the jungle.

What is it about these incredibly tough multi-day ultras that keeps you coming back for more?
I think it’s really a combination of things. I really do enjoy the mental and physical challenge, not just of the events themselves, but also of the training and planning that goes into it. I love travelling to far-flung places for an adventure. I love meeting like-minded people and hearing their stories. There is really so much about it that I love that it’s easy to overlook the hardship part of it.

You live in Calgary, Canada with the Canadian Rocky Mountains on your doorstep. It must make for a great training ground!
Calgary is a really great outdoor city. Not only do we have the Rocky Mountains as a backyard playground, but we also have the longest urban pathway system in North America. I try to get out to the mountain trails at least once or twice a week. No matter which trail I choose, I can always be guaranteed of a good hill workout!

Which do you find more difficult with ultra-distance running – is it the physical endurance or the mental test?
I think most of the time it is the mental test. The body just kind of gets on auto-pilot a lot of the time, one foot in front of the other. Don’t get me wrong, it is physically hard as well, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep the brain in the game. If you give up mentally, it doesn’t even matter how your body is feeling.

Have you got any strategies for when things get tough? I read that you count your steps?
Yes, I have been known on many occasions to count steps. I find that doing something as simple as this allows my mind to focus on something other than how tired I am or how I am feeling physically. I make deals with myself that I will run for a certain number of steps, and then I will allow myself to walk or rest for a minute. It’s really just a re-focusing technique. I also like to listen to music, though I don’t like to wear headphones on the trail, so I play it on a speaker. I usually reserve the music for the night-time hours when it can get a little lonely out there. I think anything you can do that just focuses your mind elsewhere is helpful for getting through the tough times.

Have you had any hairy moments during your ultra-running?
Not too many… there was one time when I came face-to-face with a fully grown moose on the trail. Those things are huge and you really don’t want to mess with them. I just backed away and waited for it to leave!

Photo Credit: Raven Eye Photography

Also, my first time out at the Jungle Ultra I had an issue with my headlamp. On the last stage I was running down a rough mountain road in the dark when my headlamp just completely died. It was very dark, and the road had a sheer drop-off on one side. I was exhausted, and it was actually quite scary because I simply could not see where I was going. I kept moving myself forward even though I was crying and afraid. After what felt like a really long time, a truck drove up the road towards me with a bunch of local people in the back.  When they saw me crying in the darkness, one of the men very kindly gave me a little flashlight. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved and thankful! Funnily enough, the same thing happened with my headlamp at this year’s Jungle Ultra. Thankfully though I was with other runners at the time, so I was able to navigate by the light of their headlamps.

What do you eat for breakfast before an ultra? And how do you fuel your events?
It depends. If it’s a multi-stage race where I’m carrying everything I need for a week on my back, I will bring oatmeal and peanut butter. And coffee, I can’t do without my coffee. I carry Starbucks Via singles and Nescafe 3-in1 singles. For a single day event, I will usually have a bagel or toast with peanut butter and jam.  And coffee, of course.

During the events themselves, I mainly do ‘real’ food, though I do always carry a few gels for when I need some quick energy. The ‘real’ food can be anything from nuts to bars, to cookies and candy. When I’m in the middle of a 100km or longer single-day event where I have a crew, I like for them to bring me a cheeseburger in the middle of the night!

Do you take anything or do anything to help your body recover after a multi-stage event?
Not really, other than a period of rest. When I travel to events I usually hang around for a time afterwards, sight-seeing or whatever, and this serves as a good active recovery period for me. After the Ice Ultra I took a full 2 weeks off from running, after which time I was ready to start ramping up for the Jungle again.

What kit do you swear by for your ultra runs and multi-day events?
Well, I do have a few favourites for sure. For shoes, I am an Asics girl through and through. I love the nice wide toe box that they have, while still hugging the heel enough. My favourites are the Asics Gel Fujitrabuco trail shoes. They are a good all-round trail shoe.

My watch is a good old fashioned Timex digital watch. It doesn’t do anything fancy and that’s how I like it.

As for clothes, I’m still looking for the perfect pair of shorts, but in the meantime my current faves are Brooks Greenlight 7” short. They are long enough for good coverage, and are soft and chafe-free. I’ve put these shorts through the wringer and they have held up very well.

For outerwear, I’m a big fan of Mountain Hardwear. I always carry a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Light Rain Jacket. It folds up extremely small, and only weighs 85 grams, so I can easily stash it in my backpack to have if the weather changes. I also love my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket. Very warm and cosy with little weight and size.

The one thing I can never run without are Injinji Toe Socks. They are super comfortable and durable and are the best for preventing blisters.

You must be blister pro! Have you any tips on preventing blisters and chafing?
Actually, I rarely get blisters. When I do a multi-stage event, my big luxury is bringing a fresh pair of socks for each day, and I think this really helps with blister prevention. The accumulated grit in dirty socks can cause a lot of friction. That, and properly fitting shoes makes a big difference in blister prevention. A lot of people like to size up with their shoes for multi-stage events in case their feet swell, but I think at times that can cause more problems than it prevents. When your feet are not swollen and you have sized up your shoes, you can get a lot of movement inside your shoes, and that almost always leads to blisters.

Now chafing, however, I have a lot of experience with! The backpacks that are designed for multi-day running events are not made for women, especially women with a small stature. I have to have the straps of my pack as short as they will go, and I still get quite a lot of movement in my pack, which inevitably leads to chafing on my back. I do tape my back in areas I know are prone to chafing, but in very hot, wet events like the Jungle Ultra, even this is usually not enough and I end up with some degree of lost skin. I wish one of the companies would come up with a women’s specific pack that addresses this problem.

What’s the most challenging endurance event you’ve done?
I have a feeling that my upcoming 100 mile race at Sinister7 is going to be my biggest challenge ever – 100 miles in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with 6400 m of elevation gain in 30 hours will be hugely challenging.

Other than that though, it is hard for me to say because each race has its own super-challenging parts, and then parts that are a bit less so.

Have there been any events that you started but didn’t finish?
Yes, there have been a few DNFs in my racing history. One time I was pulled from a race because I did not make a time cut-off. This felt devastating because I still have no doubt that I could have completed the distance. A couple of other times I pulled myself out… once because I was having severe stomach issues, once because I simply wasn’t feeling it that day, and one time when my brain gave up. That one is probably the worst because I look back on it with regret. I got myself into a bad place mentally and I just wasn’t able to pull myself out of it. I do really try and use all of them as a learning experience however. I look at what I did, and what led up to the DNF, and figure out ways to do things differently next time.

Do you think you’ve found your body’s limit yet when it comes to endurance?
No, I really don’t think so. The human body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for!!

Are all your runs outside or do you ever run on a treadmill?
I try to avoid running on the treadmill at all costs (with the exception of when I’m heat training, then it is a necessary evil). I am pretty hardy and train outside in most kinds of weather. The only thing that might keep me inside would be if everything is just too icy, as sometimes happens with the kind of freeze/thaw cycles we get around here. It would have to be very bad though.

Which has been your favourite event so far and why?
The Jungle Ultra is my favourite race by far. It has all the elements I love in a place that is near and dear to me.  A beautiful setting, challenging course, an element of adventure, great people…what more could I ask for?

Where are your favourite places in the world to run?
Well, I am of course particularly fond of my Rocky Mountain backyard playground, but really I love going to any far-flung place for a running adventure. I am up for almost anything, almost anywhere!

What do your friends and family think about your endurance challenges?
I am super lucky to have a very supportive family who are whole-heartedly behind me, no matter what crazy thing I sign up for next. Ultra running can be a very selfish endeavour because the training and travelling do take up a lot of time, but my family never complains and always encourages me. I always say my husband David is my number 1 fan. He also runs and we sometimes do events together. Other family members come out and crew for me at more local races, and I always appreciates their unconditional support.

I think most of my friends think I have a few screws loose sometimes, but they are all encouraging and supportive too.

How many miles do you typically run each week, and do you do any other sport?
I don’t really have a “typical” number of training kilometres each week because it varies wildly depending on what I’m training for and where I am in my training cycle.  It can vary from maybe 40km/week on the low side all the way up to 120 or more right before a big event.

I don’t really do too much other than running, but I have been known to go hiking or pull out the mountain bike at times.

What’s a typical week’s training look like for you at the moment, Monday-Sunday?
Right now I am in the final stages of tapering for my upcoming 100-miler so my training is not typical of what I normally do. In the weeks leading up to a multi-stage event, my training might look something like this:

Sunday – 10km run or walk with fully loaded backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Monday – Long mountain run with fully loaded backpack (Up to 45 km)
Tuesday – Hill repeats with backpack (1-3 hours of repeats on a 1km long hill)
OR Shorter mountain run, up to 20km with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Wednesday – 10km mixed run/walk with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Thursday – Sprint intervals, 5km hot treadmill
Friday – 10 easy run, 5km hot treadmill
Saturday – Rest

Do you ever get nervous before an event?
I do get nervous, but it is more in the couple of weeks leading up to a big event than right before. Once I get in the car or on the plane to go to an event, the nerves seem to vanish.

I deal with my nerves by becoming hyper-organised. I make lists, organise gear, make more lists, re-organise the gear, double-check everything, pack and repack my backpack, and just generally drive everyone crazy.

Are there ever times when you can’t face running or it feels like a chore?
Oh for sure. I am a master at procrastinating. I think it’s really important to be able to look at the reasons I’m feeling unmotivated. Often the lack of motivation comes just because I’ve been working super-hard and I’m simply tired. If this is the case, I will often change the run to a walk, shorten my planned distance, or even skip it altogether. I think it’s really important to listen to our bodies, and not be afraid to change the training plan accordingly.

Other times I may just be feeling lazy about getting out, but I find that if I can get my gear on and get out the door, that’s all it takes.

Do you record your runs with a watch or on Strava?
Nope, I am old-school. I pull out a map to plan my runs, and I use a plain old Timex digital watch.

Have you got any goals and upcoming events for the rest of 2017?
Yes, I do have a few things planned. In early September, a 100-km race in Lethbridge, Alberta called the Lost Soul Ultra (

Then, in November I’m going to tackle the Namib Desert with another multi-stage race, the 250km Desert Ultraby Beyond the Ultimate Race Series (!/2017/11/20)

Do you have any sponsors that support your challenges?
None yet.

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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


  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.


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.


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