Firing on All Cylinders in the Blue Mountains

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Greetings, race fans! I bring to you, once again, another harrowing tail of suffering in the deep woods! Or, more specifically, I’m here to tell you all about my latest 50 mile suffer-fest, the North Face Endurance Challenge in the Blue Mountains, near Collingwood, ON. This was my 2nd 80km trail race in the span of a month, and the start to my ‘peak season’ this year. Once again, I was covering the event for Get Out There, and once again, I was using this as an opportunity to assess how my training was paying off and my overall running fitness this year. As some of you know, this year is a bit of an ‘experiment’ for me. I have chosen to focus solely on trail running, to see if I might have what it takes to actually become competitive.

So far, it appears I might be able to claim ‘recreational’ competitiveness. While I can finish in the top tier of racers, I don’t seem to be able to bust into the realm of podium finishes and the mythical skill levels that I see played out at the front of the pack. I’m not sure what precisely I’m lacking. Dedication isn’t it, as I’ve been pretty keen this year. Perhaps I’m just not putting 110% into every aspect of the training. Perhaps it’s the continual foot issues I suffer. Perhaps I just don’t *want* it that badly?

Either way, this is by no means detracting from the fun I have when I lace up and run in the woods, and frankly, I think maybe that is the more noble pursuit for me. Personal satisfaction, health, and happiness. Leave the blistering pace and idol status to the real crazy people winning these things! After all, in this race, I managed to knock AN HOUR off my previous time, finish 17th overall, yet STILL fall OVER 2 HOURS off the pace of the winner (6h42 for winner vs. 8h55 for me)!!!! Yeah, you read that right. The ‘pointy end’ is VERY pointy at these events. But I digress, if you’re here, you hopefully want to know how I did.

GEarth Race Route

In a nutshell, I’ve already spilled the beans. I had an AMAZING race for me. I went in with similar expectations to my last 50 miler. In that race, you’ll recall my goal was 10 hours, and I just eked in with a 9h57 finish. During the first half, I was very fast, but the 2nd half I lost some steam and had to fight meet my goal time. I approached this event with the hope of being more ‘consistent’ over the whole day. After all, these are still child’s play when faced with my season closer, a 125km effort in one day. So consistency and ability to pace are going to be key! Terrain-wise and elevation-wise, the two races were quite similar, so they should be good comparators. I think I preferred the Ithaca race overall, but Blue Mountains was quite nice as well, and perhaps a little bit easier.

To get there was a 6 or so hour drive, so Deanna and I took the Friday off. Drive down Friday, race on Saturday, drive back Sunday. The typical weekend ultra-warrior approach. As usual, we looked up a few breweries (yup, I came back stocked with even MORE beers to try out). Like Ithaca, we also opted to camp nearby. We booked a site at Craigleith provincial park, and I’ve gotta say, while it was a bit quaint in its postage stamp size, it was also kind of maddening to be in such close quarters. The tent areas were just like a suburb, with too many cars lining the streets, and way too many people and tents. Regardless, we had a decent site and liked it overall. Even made friends after the race across from us and shared beers / campfire (nice young couple from Michigan).

After setting up the tent and settling in, we made our way back into town to meet up with a friend from the magazine at a brewpub (North Winds Brewhouse). Had an awesome meal there, as well as some decent beer sampling, before driving back to the campground. A brief stop at the grocery store ensured that I had some sustenance to fuel up with in the morning before the race. When I got up early the next morning, the weather was warm, but not unbearable, meaning it should be a good day to race. I did all my pre-race rituals and drove to the start line.

I had a pace card that I had pulled together with my ‘worst case’ times printed out, which was 10 hours to cover the 80k. The idea was to always be ahead of these times. The race was large enough that there were two separate start waves, and I had been seeded in the 2nd wave. No sense worrying about that, as everything is chip timed. In fact, I preferred starting further back. With 50 or more runners up ahead, I had lots of ‘targets’, and also saved myself the risk of going out too fast with the real hotshots at the front of that heat.

It was still quite dark out, so it was mandatory to wear headlamps from race start until an hour after sunrise. Personally, I enjoy running in the dark. It’s a different game, one which is played best with a strong light, which I had. It helps me navigate the terrain as efficiently in the dark as in the sun. The opening section of this course was probably the toughest of the day, as racers were forced to run from the bottom of the ski hill to the top of the escarpment. As such, by the time I arrived at the first aid station, my pace was only slightly ahead of the goal on my pace card. However, I took that as a good things, as I would only get faster now that we were traversing the rolling terrain on top of the escarpment for the next while.

As is pretty usual in these events, I spent a large part of my time running on my own. To this point, I had been making steady progress and weaving my way through a good number of runners ahead of me. I had no idea where it put me in the standings, but I felt good. Every now and again, I’d link up with a runner or small group of runners and stay with them for a bit. I’d usually pull away on technical climbs or descents. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of those to really make me happy. While the course was decent, it wasn’t my favourite. We were on a fair number of gravel / access roads, and even some long exposed road sections, which got rather uncomfortable on the 2nd loop when in full sun!

On Track

The kilometers ticked by, and I was happy to see that I was gaining time at each aid station, and staying nicely ahead of my pace. I didn’t want to jinx things and get too confident, as I was still on the first loop, but it seemed that my nutrition and hydration plans were working quite well. I stopped a few times to pee, and my stomach felt totally fine. Good sign in a long race. The feet were also holding up well, with no pains that couldn’t manage (I sort of have constant low-level pain due to plantar fasciitis, but I can block it). In the final few kilometers of the first lap, I pulled away from a little group I’d been running with in order to bomb back down the ski hills to the turnaround point. I wanted to tackle the long climb with a bit of a gap just for my own mental wellbeing.

By this time, temperatures had definitely gone up, but the air wasn’t too humid, so running in the shade of the trees was still pretty decent. I tackled the long climb alone, and didn’t see another soul this time. In the last race, it was from kilometers 40-50 that I had hit my wall, but this time, it was just SteadySteve the whole time. While this was the toughest climb section, I was still in good shape and well ahead of pace. Arriving at the top of the escarpment, I started letting myself believe that I wouldn’t hit the wall, and could maintain my pace through to the 80k point.

Side note here. Deanna, bless her heart, had taken her bike, and had intended to see me at several aid stations while I ran. However, I’d now done a whole first loop (40k), and wouldn’t see her for another 20k or so at another aid station. I just *knew* there’d be a funny story about that, but it turns out I was just too damn fast, and she just kept missing me!

For the remainder of loop 2 my sole focus was ensuring that I was eating enough, drinking enough, and pushing myself just enough to maintain this strong pace. Crunching the numbers as I went, I could now see that a sub-9 hour time was within my reach. It’s sort of hard to describe where you are mentally towards the end of a long race. You start to feel what I’ll call ‘pre-relief’ that you are almost done, but then, you inevitably realize that each kilometer is getting tougher and tougher. Physically, yes, but also mentally. Running 80km without really stopping truly is a long way. 100km, 125km, 160km, they are all just numbers to a certain extent. It’s always the last stretch of any race where you really have to dig deep.

I was very happy how things were unfolding. Due to the double loop nature of the course, and the fact that certain sections had 2 way traffic, and also due to the fact that there were other races going on at the same time (42.2k and 50k races), there were more faces and legs on the course. I was never sure whether I was passing someone in my race or another race, but in all cases, I happily said hello and encouraged everyone along. I feed off the positivity of helping others along. The more I encouraged others, the better I felt.

View from Ski Hills

The final sections of the course involve a few sections of semi-steep ski hill ups and downs to find your way to the final aid station at the top of the hill. After that, it is a VERY steep downhill all the way to the bottom. Looking at my watch, I had 14 minutes to make the sub 9 hour time, and roughly 1.3km to cover. Should be no sweat, since it was mostly downhill. HOWEVER, after nearly 80km of constant running uphill and downhill, racers legs can be pretty shot, and going steeply downhill is NOT an easy task. To punctuate that, as I crested the hill to start the descent, I saw strewn ahead of me lots of racers picking their way very gingerly downhill. Several were actually walking backwards, and many other were criss-crossing widely across the slope.

Given my now single-minded focus on the sub-9 hour time, I threw caution to the wind, and willed my legs to hold out for a quad-defying sprint straight down. I veritably FLEW down that mountain, picking up steam as I went. Had I been a snowball, I would have been a snowMOON by the bottom! I knew that I was causing untold damage to my muscles and feet, and didn’t care. All that mattered was crossing under 9 hours. And I did it! I saw the finishing chute a little further along the base trail of the mountain, and the time on the clock and knew I was in a good spot. I finally crossed in 8:55, shattering my previous 50 miler time by an hour! The elation is hard to put into words, but let’s just say I was proud of me. Proud of my commitment to the training, and mental perseverance throughout the course. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and with age definitely comes some wisdom with racing. All I can say is that it is paying off.

Deanna was waiting at the finish, snapping pictures and waiting for a sweaty hug. We hung around a bit for my free food (fries with chicken fingers if you can believe it!), and for the awards ceremony, where was very rambunctious thanks to a huge crowd of racers representing the November Project. Lots of fun. However, I was itching to hit a few breweries to pick up beers to bring home, and also to visit with friends at a post-race get-together we were invited to. We had a lovely evening with fellow racers before returning to our tent for a nice night’s sleep. In my case, it was in my hammock, which was super awesome post-race, as it kept my feet elevated all night and cradled me in comfort.

Sunday morning, it was off for breakfast, then the 6 hour drive home to reflect on the event. As you can tell, I was very happy how it turned out. The great trail running experiment seems to be working out pretty well so far. Next up, in 3 weeks, was a 3-day, 150km semi-supported trail race in Gatineau Park called the Bad Beaver Ultra. Hopefully all my feet and legs hold up to the continued abuse. Till then, feast your eyes on my race video from TNF ECS Ontario…

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