Tag Archives: Ultra Running

Becoming Half a Sinner

I looked down at my watch again and did the math in my head for the thousandth time. I’d lost some time on this leg, but in theory, it was still *possible* that I’d be able to finish my first 100 miler within the 30 hour time limit. However, there were a few problems. First, it was nearing 10pm, and my headlamp was in my transition bag which was another mountainous 8km of singletrack away. In addition, I wasn’t actually sure when I had last ate or drank anything, and my whole body felt ‘off’. And so it came to pass that I had to make peace with my decision to pull myself out at the next checkpoint, at the 82.2km point in the race after having given it my all for nearly 15 hours. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my story of the Sinister 7 Ultra!

Sinister 7 2017

Two weeks have passed since I excitedly got to the start line, did some pre-race yoga and centered myself before launching into what I knew was going to be a tough race. It is high time that I share my whole story with you all. First off, there will be no excuses. I made my own decisions about this race, and feel that in spite of everything, I did show up in form to actually get this done. Yes, I have some leg issue that I’m awaiting an MRI to diagnose, and I hadn’t ran that much since my last 50 miler as a result, but I felt mentally ready, which in this kind of race counts the most.

Sinister 7 isn’t so much a race as it is a crucible designed to test your mettle. While the relay racer category boasts the higher numbers, it is the like-minded group of solos that make this race legendary. Celebrating its 10th year, this year’s edition was definitely the toughest by all accounts. The course had been tweaked, making it just a little tougher, and the weather this year was unrelentingly hot during the day. Given these conditions, less than 18% of the solos actually completed the event, so I was in the vast majority with my DNF, but actually got further than a lot of other racers. But why? Let’s examine.

Tecumseh and Seven Sisters

First off, I was really excited to finally head out west in Canada for a race this year, and was actually re-tracing the footsteps of my immigrant father (but that’s for another story) by arriving in Calgary. Mountains always hold an allure for me, so the setting of Crowsnest Pass was ideal in my mind for a first attempt at the 100 mile distance in trail running. Never mind that this is one of the hardest hundred milers not only in Canada, but North America. As somewhat usual for me, in order to ensure there would be an audience for my success or failure, I was covering this race by producing a video for Get Out There Magazine (see epic final video below), which meant filming not only before and after my race, but during the race itself.

So, how could I make things even more challenging? Well, how about racing it solo and completely unsupported? That’s right, whereas the majority of solo racers would arrive at transition zones to hordes of family and friends there to cater to their every whim, I was on my own to fight through the people to get things like peanut butter sandwiches and water. Mind you, there were oodles of AMAZING volunteers willing to help how they could, but the added dimension of being self-supported is a challenge. However, typically, I thrive in such settings, so again, no excuses, and I relish that extra effort I had to make to keep myself motivated and moving.

The race itself is broken into 7 overall stages, each with their own difficulty ratings. The first to legs are on the ‘easier’ side, but make no mistakes, they are only on the ‘easier’ side compared to the other legs of Sinister 7, meaning they are also tough. Leg 3 of this race is the second longest and has the second most elevation gain, but when you get to it, you are tackling it in the middle of they day, and much of it is exposed. When you factor in that it was around 35 degrees that day, you quickly see why it claimed many victims this year.

Admiring the Big Truck

I’m proud to say I wasn’t one of them. I had played my game carefully to this point. But let’s back it up. The day before, I did everything I could to stay focused and relaxed, hanging out with a few friends from home that were also racing. We took a nice ride to see some of the sights, including the worlds largest truck, as well as some of the course transition spots, to get a sense of the race. We had an amazing pre-race meal at the registration / race expo site. We were bandit camping in the woods right at the finish area, so we wouldn’t have to re-locate the next day after the race. I got a decent amount of horizontal time in my tent (I wouldn’t say I really slept much, but at least I was laying down).

We got up around 5am in order to catch a shuttle shortly after 6am to the start line, a short drive away. While warm early in the morning, it wasn’t sweltering yet. I’d made some last minute purchases to prepare for the forecasted heat, including cooling arm sleeves, a cooling buff, and a new white hat with a mini cape. The cooling gear was purported to produce coolness when it is wet, so I had high hopes for it.

Start Line Photo

At 7am, the race got underway, and I decided to reign in my speed, and pace myself by running with my friend Cal Mitchell, who is legendary in that he has actually completed the Grand Slam of Ultras, which is four 100 milers in a span of 2 months! If anyone knows how to pace in different conditions, it’s Cal. Plus, he’d completed Sinister 7 before, so had firsthand course knowledge. We ran side by side for much of leg 1, with me only pulling ahead a few times to grab some video footage. However, by the time we closed in on Transition Area 1, I had somehow gotten about 10 minutes ahead of him, so chose to cool off in a creek and await him. When Cal got in, it seemed he wasn’t having the best day, and he urged me to keep going without him, and just trust my own pacing.

Climbing on Leg 2

I’d completed leg 1 in 2 hrs 18 minutes, only 12 minutes ahead of my planned pace. I left TA1 pretty much bang on my planned schedule. Leg 2 was a beautiful stage, with some gnarly climbs, but extremely rewarding views higher up, and a sweet section of trail on the edge of a hill with great sidelong views. The end of if featured some super fun twisty turning descents, and I felt pretty good. I was calm, heart rate under control, and nutrition and hydration completely dialed in. I cruised into TA2 (which we also see as TA3) feeling happy. Once again, I was exactly on pace, arriving at pretty much the 5 hour mark, giving me a theoretical 2 hour buffer when compared to the cutoffs.

Knowing that the next leg was going to be brutally hot, I made sure my 2.5L bladder was completely filled, and grabbed a couple peanut butter sandwiches before turning around and trotting back out. I didn’t touch my transition bag at this point, as I had all I needed. I was also making liberal use of my trekking poles, and they were pretty much a fixture in my hands for the rest of the race.

Enjoying a Sandwich on Leg 3

Although I haven’t mentioned other racers, I will note that throughout the day, there were plenty of great conversations, and trading footsteps with other hearty solo racers as well as relay team people. Although I’d spend lots of time alone, there always seemed to be people not that far away, so if you slowed pace, inevitably someone would show up to perk you back up. On Leg 3, this was much appreciated, as it definitely started feeling like a race of attrition. Temperatures were soaring, and it was starting to get very challenging to regulate my body heat.

Leg 3  (see full race leg descriptions here) featured a series of climbs and descents, with many of them quite exposed. To deal with the heat, I basically stopped at every single trickle of a stream to dump my hat in the water, soak my buff, and wet down my arms and legs. There was simply no escaping the heat, and we were still burning tons of calories, while not fully replenishing them. I have enough experience that I know what I need to do, but it was TOUGH to keep things in check. Luckily, I’d known Leg 3 was a critical ‘make or break’ stage, so I worked hard at managing everything.

I’d given myself a conservative 6 hours for this leg, and wouldn’t you know it, I cruised into the Transition Area at 5:58pm, having taken pretty much precisely 6 hours to cover this leg. I was happy to see I was racing exactly to my plan. This is absolutely key in a race like this. I made the decision at TA3 to take a little longer rest to change socks and shoes, giving me a chance to check my feet over. That’s when I discovered that somewhere in all the punishing downhill runs, I’d *finally* managed to nearly completely dislodge one of my big toenails. As a result, I ended up spending over 25 minutes in transition while I waited for a medic to remove the toenail and associated lingering tissue (yes, I know, yuck!), and then completely patch it up to prevent infection later.

Steady Progress on Leg 4

I would say this was the start of my undoing in the race. You see, instead of taking the time to properly eat and drink in the aid station, I was stuck sitting in a chair while they worked on me. Then, anxious to make some time back up, I abruptly headed back out. Yes, I’d re-filled on fluids, added food to my pack, but I should have eaten and drank a bit more while in the relative calm of the transition. However, given that I’d been right on track, I knew I had to get moving.

In my mind, Leg 3 had been the ‘beast’, and Leg 4 would give me a reprieve. This was my second fatal flaw. I had not actually studied the course / leg profile, and was therefore not intimately aware with what was awaiting me. I won’t make that mistake again. With the hot temperatures still sitting with us well into the evening (it was now around 6:30pm), I set out at a modest pace, and attempted to eat and drink a bit on the first climb (since you’re forced to hike anyway). I marveled as a couple young gents blazed past me, but realized they were clearly relay racers with fresh legs.

My Undoing

In all honesty, it’s tough to truly recall that much about Leg 4 even now. Looking back at the profile, I now understand why I was losing my mind. There was a MONSTER CLIMB that I totally didn’t count on. This essentially killed my mental state. I hit a very deep low, and couldn’t seem to climb out of it. The longer the climb lasted, the more I felt like this was completely unnecessary suffering, and I wanted it to end. Even once I FINALLY reached the top, I was in a funk. That’s when I realized I’d more or less stopped eating and drinking, and had no desire to try to get back into that groove.

Looking at my watch, I also realized I’d lost over an hour as compared to my plan, which further dissuaded me. In reality, even with my conservative plan, I’d left 2 ‘spare’ hours for unforeseen challenges, but I felt it was too ‘early’ to be using those up. After all, the hardest leg is Leg 6, and I was a long way from there! Due to the lost time, I also made the realization that I wouldn’t finish this leg in the daylight, and I had made a STUPID last-minute to move my headlamp from my TA3 bag to my TA4 bag, meaning I’d be stuck finishing this leg without light. If you’re keeping track, that was fatal flaw #3!

Strava Capture

All of these circumstances culminated in my mentally throwing in the towel. During the slow, arduous descent to the next checkpoint, I convinced myself that I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint. I rehearsed what I’d say in my mind, and even thought I was at peace with it. I’d managed to race just over half of the course, and while not completely broken, I had some concerns around residual impacts of continuing, and also the very real risk of having an accident thanks to clumsy feet and no light on the final section of the leg. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the BUGS WERE ABSOLUTELY INSANE on this leg!! Another person at the checkpoint basically quit because of the bugs alone!

And so it came to pass that I pulled the plug at CP4B in Leg 4, having covered just over 82kms in just under 15 hours. The 2 volunteer staff there were great, they were completely neutral when I said I was pulling out, stating it was definitely my decision, and they’d respect it. But at the same time, they actually offered me a headlamp if I wanted to continue. A little part of my brain immediately tried to speak up and say “Take it. Keep going. You’ll make it to TA4 and re-group”. Unfortunately, it was too late, the bigger, meaner part of my brain had already bullied me into submission. I should have listened to the littler part of my brain. That was the REAL me. The one that keeps going in spite of the odds. Had I done so, I would have learned that there were warm meatballs and soups awaiting me at the next transition, along with other clothes if I wanted, and my amazing headlamp to keep me going.

Finish Line Photo

However, as I write this, we know hindsight is 20/20. I have to live with my decision. And unfortunately in this case, that’s what it was. My decision. I hadn’t been cut off. I hadn’t suffered some terrible accident or injury. I was just ‘off’. And that, friends, is humility. As I will always tell people, you learn as much from failures as you do successes, so I will spend the next year (or 2, or 3) learning my lessons and doing my homework until I return to Sinister 7 once again for a shot at my redemption!

Interestingly, yesterday, I read a very relevant article making the case for why quitting is sometimes the best decision. While a long read of itself, I highly recommend giving it a read. It’s an overall life lesson, not race-specific. Read it here. One line that struck me towards the end was:

“Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting.” – Eric Barker

In some ways, I feel this very succinctly encapsulates the entire reason why I get into these situations and tackle things like overly ambitious long-distance races. I’m on an eternal quest to determine what is worth not quitting.

Right. Well, I’ve made you all stick with me long enough to share this tale, but it was one I have been re-hashing in my mind for the past two weeks and was anxious to share it with you all, so let’s wrap things up!

All is not Enough

So, what did I do after dropping out? In a nutshell, waited around for a drive back to the finish. Upon arriving, I learned that all 3 of my buds had also dropped out. They were all sitting in lawn chairs near the finish, enjoying beers, and essentially just waiting to learn of my fate. They poked fun at me, I had a shower, ate an amazing burger from a food truck that had set up at the finish and stayed open ALL NIGHT, and dusted myself off. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so I hobbled back down to the finish line from 2-4am to cheer in finishers, then back there again from around 6:30am until the 1pm cutoff to cheer in the very last solo racer. It was a girl I’d ran with a fair bit in the middle of the race from Utah.

Her race? Well, she crossed the line at 30 hours and 4 minutes, so was officially a DNF (did not finish). No belt buckle, no wine, no official finish, even though she had persevered and completed the entire course. That’s the bitch of it all. If you don’t finish by the cutoff, you are not an official finisher! Just try to put yourself in her mind at that moment. Delirious, having given everything, only to be told you were 4 minutes late after 30 hours of racing 160 grueling kilometers in the mountains!

Needless to say, I congratulated her, gave her a hug, and turned away choking back my own tears for her predicament. Ultras are emotional beasts, and I guarantee they can put anyone in tears in the right circumstance.

Cal and Steve

For my part, I made the best of the rest of my vacation, enjoying a couple more days with my friends, including a remote night camping completely disconnected from the world, and a very memorable day / night in Calgary and at the Stampede. Mark my words people. I. WILL. BE. BACK. Till I am, sit back, and enjoy the video I made of my experiences! Next up, Squamish 50/50 in a few weeks, where I plan on at least earning myself a truckers’ hat. One DNF is enough in a season, right??

Staring down the Stairs in Ithaca

Welcome back race fans. Two weeks ago I lined up at the start line of the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race for the second time. This is notable in some respects, as I VERY rarely repeat ‘away’ races. I ran in (and covered) this race last year, and was captivated by it for a few reasons. Firstly, Ithaca is a really cool little New York town, with a hidden secret: the canyons / waterfalls just outside the core! I had absolutely no idea that there were such cool natural features so close! Add to the fact that there is a tasty brewery close by, and two great state parks to camp in, and there is ample reason to choose to try this race out. In addition, it is only about a 4.5 hour drive from Ottawa, and the timing makes this a great early season test race. While I didn’t film any video this time around, I have a pile of pictures, you can see them all by clicking left / right in the frame below.

Cayuga Trails 50 - 2017

It was therefore with high hopes that I was coming back to this race a second time. The race also serves as the USA Track and Field trail 50 mile Championships, so you just KNOW there will be excellent competition to mix it up with ( and in my case, I just KNOW I have NO chance at a podium!). Deanna and I once again made this a pretty quick trip, spending less than 48 hours total in the States. We had 2 nights booked in the Robert H Treman state park, which also serves as the start / finish area. Boy, are we glad we FINALLY bought a bigger tent last year. So nice to actually be able to stretch out, relax, and get dressed without knocking each other out (and we each have our own door!).

Gangsta Camping

As mentioned, I had high hopes. Last year, I managed to finish just under 10 hours, but was hoping to better that time by an hour if at all possible. I was pretty confident I could at least take 30 minutes off. Part of my bravado came from the fact that a month ago, I felt I had proved myself pretty capable by snagging 5th overall at the 12 hour Black Fly Trail race, and believed that the suffering I had put in there might translate to extra strength and speed a month later. My training had been going well, and recovery after hard efforts even better, so I believed in myself.

Race start was 6am on Saturday morning. We’d gotten in town around 7pm the night before, so we didn’t have an abundance of time to get into the ‘zone’, but I slept well enough, and had no excuses. I got my kit together, and headed to the start. Ironically, almost exactly like last year, I found myself as the last dude waiting to use the washroom, with a mere minute or so before the start of the race. Nothing like pressure! Ha ha ha. Luckily, we actually started a couple minutes late, so I still had time to mingle and get settled into the start chute before the start horn (literally, a horn made of an animal horn of some sort….).

Awaiting the Starting Gun

The plan out of the gate was to not go all out. At the Black Fly, I stuck to the front runners from the star, but in this race, knowing it was the championships, I didn’t want to get sucked into an untenable position. So I let myself float back a bit in the crowd, opting to chat with people I recognized from last year. This made the first few kilometers fly by without even noticing, but once we hit the first set of climbs and technical bits, my desire to pick up the pace a bit took over, and I started pulling away and passing other runners.

I decided to run pretty much by feel, and not pay too much mind to my watch. The only exception was when I’d get to an aid station, just to see how far ahead of my conservative 10 hour pace card I was. The course is a double-loop course, but also a bit of a figure-8, so there are really only 3 aid stations that you see several times during the race. The first one is always basically ignored on the opening lap, as it comes up only 6k or so after the start. In fact, it wasn’t even  really set up when we ran past it the first time.

Piper at the Stairs

By and large, the course was pretty much the same as the 2016 edition, with a few modifications, including a new 1.6km trail section through old growth forest. The idea was that this modification would cut off a bit at the end, to give us the full 80k. Most of this race is in the shade (luckily), and takes racers through impressive canyons with even more impressive stone steps to run up and down. There are also long sections in the woods, and a few access roads and VERY little pavement, which is greatly appreciated. A couple sections are less awesome, like a seemingly long stretch running in an open field, but all in all, I find the course very balanced. The big challenges are the stairs, which cumulatively lead to some serious quad fatigue during the 2nd lap. The overall climbing only registered as 2,600m, but it seemed a lot more than that. Of course, given the GPS coverage challenges in the canyon, perhaps it was…

After the first aid station, I found myself running more or less alone, keeping my eyes on a few runners just off in the distance ahead. I was enjoying my solo running, feeling light on my feet. However, all of a sudden, I realized I had a runner right behind me. I figured he must have just been off the trail taking  a ‘nature break’ before joining in with my stride. I assumed he was a more speedy dude, and would want to pass me, but instead, he seemed happy to just stay on my heels. I was trying to decided whether I should pull ahead, or pull aside, and then just opted to run my race. Eventually, we struck up conversation, as it became clear we’d likely be running together for a while. Sometimes I like the solitude, other times, the company is nice. In this case, it was welcomed company, and we learned all about each other as we ticked over the miles on the course.

Winding our Way Up

Interestingly, at this point in the race, I was WAY ahead of schedule. I’m talking like a projected finish of just over 8 hours!! I had told Scott, and he intimated that this was probably not sustainable, and I also agreed, so mentally we tried to reign it in a little bit, but things just felt good at that point. We actually kept running together again after this turnaround, as he caught back up to me as I was navigating the long stairs back up the canyon. Once again, the miles started ticking by. Unfortunately, this is also about the time that I took a spill. As usual, in the heat of a race, I never really remember if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as my focus is on recovery. Essentially, it was one of those ass over tea kettle falls, with a bottle being ejected. I stunt-man rolled with it, recovered my bottle, and was back on my way as soon as possible. My new friend Scott had seen the whole thing (and reported on it in his blog), and was making sure I was okay. Of course, macho racing ActiveSteve shrugged / limped it off for a few hundred meters, and thought nothing of the impact or the slight trickle of blood from my knee. At the next aid station, Deanna also noticed it and said “looks like you fell”. Indeed. But another quick inspection didn’t concern me.

Entry to Underpass Aid Station

I’m not sure where exactly I pulled ahead of Scott, but I did. In ultra running, there is no real saying ‘goodbye’ and pulling away from people, it just sort of happens. Everyone ebbs and flows in the energy department at different points, so this is the natural flow of the race. Actually, now I remember. It happened when another runner joined us, a female from Toronto named Karen. She was FLYING. I got sucked into her slipstream as she passed and we were talking. I guess we sort of pulled slowly away from Scott, and that was the last time we ran together. I stuck with Karen until after the next Aid station, when I told Deanna I had to get going as I had to follow my new friend. However, it was clear she had the engine firing on a better gear than me, and I was now limping every time I had to start running away. I had noticed a little tightness in my right calf lately. Nothing debilitating, but noticeable nonetheless. As I kept running, I decided it was perhaps a side effect of switching to zero drop shoes recently, since tight calves / Achilles are common. I decided I’d change shoes at the halfway point to hopefully provide relief. Again, status check didn’t raise any red flags, so I ran through the niggling pains. Good ole endorphins!

As decided, when I cruised into the halfway turnaround point (the start/finish), I took a slightly longer pause to change shoes and socks. There are a number of water crossings, so it feels SOOOO nice to slip into dry socks for even a little bit. I told Deanna that I’d be slowing down, and noted that I *was* feeling some pain in my leg, but not to worry. I headed back out, and settled into a comfortable ‘ultra-cruising’ pace, which is somewhere between 7 and 8 mins / kilometer. The opening 25% I ran in 2:10, by the 50% mark, I was at 4:30, so I was definitely slowing, but still hopeful for a 9.5 hour total. Sadly, I got into my own head for the second loop.

Sock and Shoe Change at Turnaround

I spent most of my loop on my own, and with no one to visibly chase, and with no one passing me to put the pressure on, I just let my pace naturally drop I think. By the time I hit the 75% mark, I’d hit 7:15, or in other words, it took me 35 minutes longer than first time to cover this distance. As I often do to pass the time, I started crunching numbers, and knew hitting 9:30 would be VERY difficult. I once again chose to ignore the watch and just focused on getting through what was now just becoming a painful final 21k or so. Luckily, my nutrition and hydration were working perfectly, so that was a good thing, and something to note for my next race in terms of strategies.

Daunting Challenge 2nd Time

This last 21k became VERY challenging. I willed myself to keep actually ‘running’ and not power hiking the climbs, but some of the long stair sections did get the better of me. I also had the realization that the course would definitely be over 80k (I logged over 83k by the finish). I was extremely relieved to reach the final aid station, knowing it was mostly downhill and only 6-7k to the finish. I had a few final perogies (god-send out there!), and got back out there.  Somewhere in the closing section I risked a look at my watch. Ugh. I realized that if I rallied, I should at least be able to salvage a sub 10 hour finish. I gave it one final mighty push (once again sacrificing my toenails on the descents!), and flew the final downhills until I could literally hear the finish line music and see the open field leading to the finish.

The Finish Chute

With a mighty effort, I crossed under the banner clocking an official finish time of 9:58:26, almost EXACTLY 1 minute slower than my 2016 time. However, the course ended up being a bit longer, and I will argue that conditions were not as good this year (some mud sections). The final results bear this out, as the 2016 winner finished in 6:40, whereas this year it was 7:32! My overall standing also improved. I finished 32nd male, and 6th in my category (last year was 38th and 5th respectively).  Overall, I couldn’t complain.

5 Guys Burger and Fries Post Race

We capped off our day by delicious Five Guys Burgers, and picked up some tasty Ithaca Brewing beer for the campsite. With only a month until my upcoming 100 Miler, my plan was to recover fast and get in some final training, but as some of you will note, that nagging pain in the race? Yeah, not great. Turns out I tore something (undetermined as of this writing, as I await an MRI). However, I believe it is healing well, and I’m still optimistic. Regardless, once again, Cayuga Trails kicked my butt, and was another memorable and enjoyable race. One of these times I should really add a day to the trip to truly enjoy the area! Maybe next year, right? Well, until next time, hope you enjoyed my wordy race report!

Strava Track

Muddy Mayhem at Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

In theory, we should have been super happy. After all, there was no blazing sun, and there were no swarms of the namesake Black Flies harassing us as we ran. However, what we got instead was just as draining mentally and physically. Lots of rain, and lots of mud, which only worsened as the hours ticked by. What exactly am I talking about? None other than my first ‘summer’ ultra trail running race, the Black Fly ultra taking place in my personal playground! There were options to race for 3, 6 or 12 hours. Can you guess what I opted for? Of course, 12 hours! My plan was to use this as a long training day to see how things were progressing for my journey to Sinister 7 (my first 100 miler coming up in July). Read on to learn more about this new and exciting race in our area!

Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

Last year, you may recall that I took part in the inaugural Bad Beaver Ultra, a 3-day staged ultra race taking part in Gatineau Park. Well this year, they added a couple new events to their roster, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring and try them out. After all, who doesn’t want another cool hoodie to add to their collection, right? The idea behind the first new event, the Black Fly, was to pit racers against themselves on a looped course that you would run for 3, 6, or 12 hours straight. The winners would be whoever logged the most loops in the allotted time. In my mind, that meant that regardless how far I’d run, I would at least be able to say I did a proper 12 hour training day.

My going in position was not to take it too seriously or competitively. After all, this was pretty early in the season, and I was running on untested feet! Plantar fasciitis has been a recurring theme, with my right foot currently suffering the brunt of it. I’d been putting in trail time, but due to a lingering winter, I hadn’t been on trails very much yet, just a lot of road mileage to remind my legs how to run. The week before the event, I headed out to the venue and did about 4 practice loops of the course as best I could piece it together. Bumped into a few other folks doing the same thing that day, and we all agreed the trails were in great shape and it should be a fun day racing in a week.

Satellite view of Trail

Well, good ole mother nature decided to play tricks on us, deciding that later in the week should be characterized by biblical rains, and that the actual race day should also feature her favourite natural hydrator. In fact, I learned later that the race organizers were actually on the fence whether or not to cancel the event outright the evening before, due to the risk of damaging the mountain bike trails we’d be using! In the end, the decision was made to slightly modify the original course, and see how things progressed during the event.
As the original plans called for the start/finish/loop area to be in an open space, Deanna and I made a bit of a mad scramble the day before the race trying to secure a pop-up tent that I could use as my private ‘aid station’. Luckily, the fine folks at Euro-Sports had one available, and were kind enough to let us use it! On race morning, we learned that the aid area was relocated to the lower level of the Camp Fortune lodge, so it would be dry. However, I opted to still set up my own tent to keep things simple for my race. It would also mean I hopefully wouldn’t be too tempted to stay indoors and dry when the going got tough, which I was sure it would.

In keeping with my ‘long training day’ mantra, I had a few other tricks up my sleeve. Mostly, this consisted of my testing out a whole lot of new things on race day! I had new shoes to try, new socks, and even new nutrition / hydration. The way I saw it, since we were doing loops anyway, if something wasn’t working, I could swap it out. All told, I went through three pairs of socks and three pairs of shoes, changing out every roughly four hours. I can honestly say that putting on dry socks twice, even if it lasted less than 10 minutes, was a real mental boost during the slog! Oh yeah, and as is often the case these days, I was carrying cameras and getting trail footage for a review (which you can find at the bottom of the post).

Lead Pack

For the 12 hour event, our race got underway at 6am, after a briefing indoors, where we were instructed to always run through the middle of all puddles and mud areas, which would limit trail damage. It was clear we’d spend the day very wet and muddy. There were 34 of us brave souls at the start, with a pretty low-key start line. I decided to hang out near the front and see how things went. It was clear quite early that one dude out to put a little distance between him and the crowd as soon as possible, but apart from that, I found myself running a nice solid race pace with a group of about 4-5 other accomplished ultra runners. Initially, I had a feeling that I’d drop back within a loop, but much to my surprise, I spent the majority of my first 4 hours running with this lead pack (minus turbo dude in front).

We had a good group spirit, and traded stories and jokes as we got progressively wetter and dirtier, and the trail god increasingly more treacherous. To call it a trail in spots would be a misnomer. It was more like a river carving its way along the remnants of trails. It felt quite rain forest-esque in some spots as well. Luckily, it wasn’t super cold, so I was making do with tights, a merino wool long sleeve top, and a gore-tex shell. Ironically, I’d grabbed that gore-tex shell as an afterthought on the way out, but it ended up being my outer layer for the entire day! I was having so much fun running with these guys that when nature was calling, I was paranoid about losing them, so I had to time my stops. At one point, I was sitting in a porta-potty, keeping the door open a crack to see when the lads would be running by (this was between laps). Amazingly, I didn’t lose to much time and got to hang out a bit longer with them.

Regardless, when hour 4 came along, I decided to take my first real pit stop, and change socks and shoes. Yes, I’d lose time, but that wasn’t as critical to me as it was that I check my feet for any damage, and try another pair of shoes. In an ironic twist, my ‘pit crew’ ended up being none other than Ray Zahab himself, who feigned being grossed out by peeling my socks off for me. But knowing what he has gone through in the past, I have no doubt it was more acting than real disgust! I changed my Salomon Wings Pro 2 shoes for a pair of Inov-8 Mudclaws, which I thought may work better in the now deep mud. The plan was to run in this combination for the next 4 hours.

Full Stride

Well, about 3.5 hours later, a couple things happened. First, I was informed that I’d only be doing one more ‘long’ loop up Brians trail (that whole section was getting cut). Secondly, I’d had enough of the Inov-8s. They were killing my feet. With minimal cushioning and large lugs, every time I’d push off or land on a rock, the lugs would drive into my feet, causing discomfort. I opted to take my 2nd pit stop a bit early. This time, I wanted a full boost. SO, I put on a new dry shirt, new gloves, new socks, and BRAND NEW shoes! Yup, trying out a pair of Skecher GoTrail waterproof shoes for the first time. Lots of cushioning. At this stop, Deanna noted that I didn’t seem very happy. I think she was right. The mud and rain, and sore feet were getting to me!

I lingered an extra minute or so before finally trotting out, with warm, dry feet, and a little trepidation at the final 4+ hours of running I had ahead of me. By now, I had definitely lost the pace of the front runners, and was more or less running my own race. In the past 4 hours, we seen the numbers swell first from the 6 hour runners joining us, and then the 3 hour runners joining. However, after the 9 hour mark, it was back to just the 12 hour runners, and things quieted down a lot. I was on my own. However, something magical happened on that lap I think. I felt lighter on my feet again. It was the shoes! These things drained the water fast, felt light, and were like pillows on my feet compared to the previous pair. When I finally jogged in after the next loop, Deanna could see I was much happier again. Of course, maybe it was also the slice of pizza that I had inhaled!

Either way, when you know you only have a bit more than 3 hours to go, you are starting to see the end of the misery (fun?). By this point in the day, I could tell that my pace had dropped. Without really being aware of it, I had now been lapped by the leaders, who seem to have an inhuman ability to keep pushing at the same pace they’d started at. For me, there was definitely starting to be ‘groundhog day’ feel to the loops, and I realized I now knew exactly where the rocks were hiding in the puddles, which roots to avoid, and which rocks were the best to jump on and off from. Things had definitely moved into the ‘cruise control’ portion of the day. Now it was all in the mental game. Willing myself to just keep going around another time, despite realizing that there was nothing amazing waiting around the bend! Luckily, people were still hanging around at the lap area, occasionally even emerging from the warmth and dryness of the building to cheer us on.

Filming and Running

Energy-wise, I’d say that I’d done a good job with nutrition. I was testing out Tailwind as a substitute to solid food, and it worked pretty well. My only concern was that by moving to a liquid-only option, I think I drank too much, too fast in the early hours, as I did end up with some bloating and discomfort for a few laps. I suspect that on a hotter day, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, since I’d need the liquids more. At any rate, later in the day, I went back to my tried and tested combo of Nuun for hydration and Fruit2 for nutrition.

As the clock marched forward, I started doing the mental math on pacing to figure out exactly how many more loops I’d have in me. You see, as long as you START a loop before the 12 hour cut-off, you can finish it, and it counts. So in that way, the 12 hour race is actually over 12 hours :-). I have a feeling that my internal clock was actually pre-programmed however. On my final lap, it appeared as though my pace was EXACTLY tuned for complete the loop AT the 12 hour mark. I’m pretty sure that if I’d *really* wanted it, I could have crossed the line a couple minutes before the cut off and completed one more loop. However, I also realized it would not affect the standings in the least bit for me. The next person ahead would be at least 1 loop ahead, and I couldn’t catch them, and anyone behind me would be unable to do another loop anyway, and therefore not ‘pass’ me. So I opted to just cruise in comfortably at the 12 hour mark.

Finish Line with Race Directors

A small but energetic group was gathered at the finish cheering in the 12 hour finishers at this point, including all 3 of the race directors. They were chanting for me to dive head first into the mud across the line, but frankly, I was having none of that. I just wanted to be done now, get out of the rain, and rest a while. After all, I was slated to be at a potluck / party in the next hour!! You can just imagine how much fun I was going to be there 😉

When all the dust, or rather mud, settled, the stats on the day were cause for some happiness. I had covered roughly 85km of distance, including over 3,500m of elevation gain. I clinched 5th place overall, and by looking closely at all the results, had a pretty damn good day out there. While I really had nothing to prove, I nonetheless showed myself that my early season fitness was there, and that as long as I stay healthy, I should be in good shape to complete all my challenges planned out for 2017! As to the new gear, again, I’m happy to report positive findings on all fronts, especially my decision to impulse order DryMax socks from the US. After going through this 12 hour torture test, my feet looked pretty immaculate, all things considered. Given that they were submerged in water with churning sand all day, this was a remarkable feat. Mind you, it took HOURS to rinse out all the gear the next day, but I suffered not a single blister! Amazing!

Strava of Route

Well that pretty much wraps up my race report from the Black Fly. I’d say this is a perfect early season event for any ultra runner, as you can go as hard or easy as you want, test new things out, be surrounded by fun people, and get in a hell of a training day with lots of elevation. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d definitely put this one on the calendar for next year. And in case you need any more convincing, check out my video below! Until next time, get out there, and have some fun. Next up for me is another 50 miler, back to the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, New York. Stay tuned for that race report!

Two Nights and a Day Tackling 125k

Oh boy! Where do I start this one? With this post, I will finally be caught up with my race reports for the 2016 season. I had tentative plans to perhaps run another race, but I’ve put the plans on hold in order to make sure that I do no further damage to feet, and start my journey to 2017 and all the fun it will have to offer (no, I don’t even know yet what I’ll be doing, but I bet it will be awesome!). So without further ado, I bring you my story of my 2nd (and successful!) attempt at running the 125 km Ultra-Trail Harricana. One of my favourite trail races around, and definitely a challenging one as well. Perfect setting and lots of distance options means that if you are at all into trail running, you may want to put this one on your ‘to-run’ list! Read on for the story.

UTHC 125k Race

As you probably know by now, the 125k UTHC was my ‘target’ race for the entire season. This year, for the first time, I decided to focus on one pursuit only, trail running. Most other years, I tack on triathlons, cycling tours, adventure races, and whatever else looks interesting. However, after last year’s disappointing DNF in the 125k UTHC, I vowed I’d come back stronger, and more prepared. To those ends, I carefully devised both a training and racing schedule that should have had me amply prepared. I did an early season adventure race, but that was a necessary distraction before the true training kicked off. From there, I did a couple 50 miles (80k), improving my time, and then moved onto 2 separate 3-day races, meant to put me into further states of tiredness over different distances. Seemed like a good plan, but unfortunately, after the last 3-day race, my old friend (nemesis?) plantar fasciities reared its ugly head, threatening to derail my plans.

And THAT leads me to the night of the race. Picture it. I’m in downtown Malbaie at the Subway having a sub before grabbing a few hours sleep for a midnight shuttle bus to the start line (race begins at 2am!). I’d made a request of a friend of mine who was racing the next day (and also happens to be a podiatrist), asking for her help in maybe taping my feet to prep me for the big day. Well, as I was getting my order, who should stroll in, but Annie! She came straight to Subway on her arrival to town in order to help me out. So we sat outside, customers peering curiously at the weird guy with black toenails and his feet on the table as a lady laughed and talked to him while applying weird spray-on glue and bandages to his feet. I’m sure they had no way to comprehend what was happening.

Annie Taping Feet

This of course leads to a truism of this sport. It is REALLY hard to truly explain and get people to understand exactly what racing an event like this is all about, what you do to get there, and what it ultimately does to you. I’ve given up trying to make people truly understand the nuances, and just nod my head and agree when you get the inevitable ‘I can’t even run to the corner store, I can’t even imagine running 125k. You’re crazy.’ And I’m the crazy one? You can’t even run a few hundred meters and are proud to share that factoid? Oh well, I can only live my life, and everyone has their own ideas how they want to go through life. We all ultimately end up in the same place, so what does it matter, right? I’m having fun (mostly!).

So with bandaged feet, Deanna and I headed back to our hotel so that I could grab some shut-eye. I went to sleep somewhere around 8pm, and got back out of bed just before midnight. Ugh. It was going to be a long night / day / night of running. At this point, I had written up a pace card assuming I’d be done in about 19.5 hours. So in THEORY, I was planning a 9:30pm finish. To be clear, this was actually in my mind a conservative estimate of my finish time. I’m also convinced that without the foot problems, it was realistic. However, as is often the case, things don’t always work out the way you want.

The shuttle bus and race briefing were quite uneventful in my mind. I met up with a few people I knew and chatted idly as the start time approached. One friend was Sebastian Warner, another runner who was back for revenge. While I had bailed at the 80k mark last year, he made it to the final aid station, so with 7k to do last year before being pulled from the course. Yeah. Shitty. But he took it all in stride. As  a result of our shared disappointment from the year before, we had similar plans for this year. Start slow, stay slow, and FINISH! With that in mind, we shuffled to the start together, choosing to talk about beer rather than the race. In fact, the starting gun went off, and we were at the very back, barely registering that the race had started. There was just no point at all in running off at the start.

Copyright Karine Maltais 2

The first leg of the race is 19.5km of mainly gravel road before the first aid station. Last year, I paced hard at the beginning, treating it like a shorter event, and paying the ultimate price later. This year, it was easy conversation pace, with the heart rate clearly in a Zone1 place. I was confident this was the way to run, and Sebastian agreed, so we ran together. In fact, we picked up a ‘third amigo’ in the form of Vincent from Montreal, and slowly made our way together in the darkness, laughing, trading stories, and doing our best to ‘ignore’ the truth of what the next 110+km of racing would have in store. We all stayed together through the 1st aid station, but after that, the course makes a dramatic change. Namely, a pointy hill climb in the dark. At the aid station, I opted to just charge ahead onto the climb rather than stop for a few minutes. I had my super-bright light on, and just love climbing big hills like this one. I wisely chose to bust out my climbing poles early again, and used them to assist me.

Sebastian and Vincent were behind me, but I’d eventually see them both again. Vincent and I joined forces once again midway up the climb. By the time we hit the summit, the sky was already streaky with the new day, and I paused long enough to appreciate my place in the universe, before heading down the steep descent. Vincent and I were together until the aid station. I hit the porta-pottie, and by the time I returned, Sebastian was also back with us. Vincent and I left just slightly ahead, but after a few more kilometers, he joined us again, and shortly after that, I let them both head off ahead of me, with the plan to stay well within my comfort zone, and not allow myself to trick my brain into thinking I should run faster! I was now more or less on my own for the majority of the rest of the race (90+k). But that’s okay, people drift in and out of your sphere in a race like this based on individual abilities in different terrain.

I actually felt pretty decent as the day ticked by. Aid stations are relatively far apart in this race, so I had ended up carrying a lot of food with me as I ran, and my own little game was to plan out my next snack, and see how far I’d get before it was ‘chow time’ again. I kept the engine stoked, and carefully managed my food stores to make sure I’d get to the mid-point where I’d see Deanna, have access to my drop bag, and replenish my on-board snack selection. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of note from the race up to that mid-point anyway. I was pretty fixated with that aid station, located at the 56k point, at Parc des Hautes Gorges. The reason was that I KNEW the next leg was very hard, so I was mentally readying myself.

UTHC View from Top

I do recall there was a lot of excellent running, on both trails and access roads. We had some spectacular views on our 2nd (of 3 major) summits, and ultimately, we popped out on a hydro-cut which took us to the road that led to the aid station. I was getting tired by that point already, and jogged in with Deanna by my side to cheer me on. I plopped myself in a chair, re-filled all my food and drinks, then took a proper 5-minute breather where I lay on my back with my feet elevated in a feeble attempt to ‘micro-recover’ my feet. I was already pretty far back in the race pack, but it was of no consequence. I was already in conservation mode. My time at this point was bang-on my estimate, but I warned Deanna that I didn’t think I’d be able to maintain this pace and finish on my original estimate. Unfortunately, due to the layout of this race (aka point-to-point in pretty rugged terrain), this was the only time in the entire race apart from the finish, that I’d actually see my cheerleader. That’s actually a mixed blessing, as it meant I didn’t have to put on a brave face or risk being early or late at a station, I just had to keep on truckin’!

UTHC At 56k Mark

I left the aid station in good spirits, steeling myself for what I affectionately dubbed the ‘hell section’. Last year, it was a painful 21.5k from this aid station to the next, with  a lot  of carnage between, including lots of dehydration, and people throwing in the towel at the next station. As a result, this year, the organizers threw in a ‘bonus’ hydration-only aid station 5k later, meaning we ‘only’ had to cover 16.5k this time with no resupply. Lucky for me, I knew exactly what was coming up, and opted to fully re-fill here. I also activated my secret weapon in this section. My ipod. Headphones are prohibited, but it didn’t say anything about music on a speaker. So, with the little speaker on my ipod, I had tunes for this whole run, and it was glorious! Even though things got much tougher later, I only used them here. An interesting thing happened in this section. I started passing people. Not a lot, but I imagine these were people who had made the unfortunate mistake of starting too fast, and not realizing what this stage had in store. It was mostly uphill, on pretty gnarly track.

At one point I came across Vincent, and was actually afraid he was dead, as he was just sprawled motionless across the trail! I approached cautiously, calling his name. He stirred, seemed slightly confused before recognizing me and telling me he had just decided to take a little nap. He was low on water and had no food. I shared some of my mixed nuts with him, encouraged him as best I could, but ultimately, I had to leave him to keep chasing my ghost. I knew there were others behind, so there would be people to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again in the race, and turns out he had to abandon where I abandoned last year. I know exactly how he felt…

As for my race, I arrived safe  and sound at the next aid station, at approximately the 80k mark. With about a marathon left to go (or 1/3rd the race), I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time realizing I’d be seeing that light for quite some time! The next leg was another long one, at 18.5k, but thankfully a little easier thanks to a relatively long, downhill stretch of gravel road. Truthfully, I always find these roads tougher than trails, but at least you make decent time. After resting a few minutes at this aid station, I got my courage back, and headed off again. Doing the math, I realized that this stage would take me well over 3 hours. Having a look at the current time, it meant I should just squeak in before dark, so I made that my goal.

UTHC Racer Taking a Break

While on this leg, I tagged along close with a few other runners, now happy for some extra company, even if I wasn’t running directly with them, but at least keeping them in sight kept me motivated to plod on. By the time we cruised into the next aid station, it was just getting dark, so it was time to bust out the headlamps for the rest of the race. I was the last to arrive at this aid station in my little group, but also the first to want to head out. Mentally, I had to keep moving. I was also weary about the fact that there was rain in the forecast. I didn’t want to get wet, catch a chill, and run into some new-found misery before the end.

4 of us started this next section together in the dark, talking about how company would be good. However, with my super bright light on the technical climbing that we were facing, I soon found myself creating a bit of a gap on my new friends. I struggled with whether to stay with them or charge on, and opted to press forward. I was currently feeling good, and wanted to capitalize. I had a really good run on that leg, and pulled into the next aid station feeling reasonable. HOWEVER, we were now about to face the last tough climb of the race, and it was very dark now, and the weather was changing. I loaded up on food and drink, anxious to head out again. I managed to pull out of the aid station just as a group of 5-6 racers were coming in (we could spot their headlights in the distance). Rather than wait, I once again trotted off.

UTHC Along the River

I kept my gap, in spite of an ever-slowing pace. I was now getting too tired to even do the math to guesstimate where I’d finish. My only concern had been making the cut-offs, but I was assured I had at least an hour in the bank, so I felt pretty certain that even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d be an official finisher. So while that felt good to know, it was also depressing, as it meant I STILL had over 3 hours to go out there  (in fact, it was nearly 3.5 hours!). At this point, my favourite trails were the nice double-track trails where you have a singe tire track to follow. With a black strip in the middle, and grass on the sides, I could just drop my head, and  follow the black line. It was mind-numbing, but then again, my mind WAS numb!

On this second to last leg I felt the first few drops of rain. Nothing to get excited about or put a jacket on as a result, but an omen. I picked my way along, letting the occasional glowing orb guide me. Orb? Oh year, they strung up water bottles with little lights in them every 400m or so. It was a nice touch. Except when they appeared to be his floating high up in the sky, cuz that meant a big climb was imminent! This section ended up on another gravel road, and when I finally made it in, I was happy to hear a little pick-me-up music and to see a chair calling my name. I’ve gotta say, the volunteers manning the aid stations were absolutely amazing! They were still high energy in spit of undoubtedly having been there for a long time. It was really nice as a racer to be well taken care of at least emotionally out there!

This was it. The penultimate stage. As I sat at the final aid station, I reflected on what I’d done, and what was left. A mere 7k to the finish. But I was pretty beat. My feet were sore, and I was starting to feel like I was running on fumes. Food and drink didn’t seem to be perking me up anymore. But, there was no way I was stopping here. I waited for 2 others to arrive that I’d been running with on an off for the last several legs. They were tired too, but as a trio, we figured we could help each other. I slotted in behind the two of them and we took off. As we chatted, I learned that although these two had run pretty much the whole race together, they’d never met! Crazy. The lady in front was an amazing pacer and seemed to have a perfect amount of energy left to press on. I think she had her sights on finishing by midnight, but looking at the, I thought it was too ambitious. I stayed with them for a few kilometer (probably 4), before finally having to admit to myself that I couldn’t keep up with them. I let them slowly pull away, and I was left with my own internal struggle to keep moving. It was about now that the rain started picking up.

Finish Area at Night

Shortly after, I could start making out noise from the finish area, which wasn’t so far away (due to snaking trails around the area). Every now and again I thought I could hear music wafting through the air. I knew the ‘dance party’ would be in effect, and that the beer was flowing. Would people still be there? Would Deanna? Could I pull off a smile at the finish? Or just collapse. I’d know soon enough, as I was just passing the 1km to go signs. By now, the rain started really coming down, soaking me to the core. Luckily, I had been pretty hot most of the day, so it was still ‘refreshing’. The closing kilometer was actually a trial in itself. The race ends on some extremely swampy ski trails back to the lodge, and with the heavy rains, it was now a major boggy mess. It took me 20 minutes to cover that final kilometer, and each step was fought for. I was getting angrier and angrier until…. I saw it! The lights of the finish!

They saw me at the same time. The announcers far-off voice was urging me to press on, to not give up, and go for the finish. With the bight lights at the finish, I could see just how stormy and rainy it now was. I moved back to a jog speed, pulled out the camera, and shot my final hundred meters to the finish. Waiting for me was the race director, Deanna, and my friend Sebastian, who’d finished over an hour earlier (thus defeating his demons too!). I was given a heros’ welcome, happily accepted my medal, then sought the safety of the nearby recovery tent where I could plunk my ass in a chair, get out of the rain, and get my legs up. What a feeling! The first aid volunteers were busy making sure I was ok, and about to hand me some Pepsi to hydrate when the race director steps over and hands me an ice cold beer instead! While the first couple mouthfuls were glorious, I must admit I just didn’t have the energy to drink a whole beer. That would have to wait until the next day! Of course, since it was after midnight it already WAS the next day!

Sebastien and Steve

Shortly after I finished, the skies really opened up. We’re talking biblical rains! I felt really bad for those still out there. I was near the back of the pack, but there were still 9 others that finished after me. I had finished 61 out of 102 starters. 70 of us finished, and 32 did not, so a 69% finishing rate on this course. I’ll take it! I asked Deanna to bring the car as close to the recovery area as possible. I crumpled myself into the passenger side, and as soon as I closed the door, my body started shutting down. I was shivering uncontrollably, and freezing cold in spite of the heat. We rushed back to the hotel, where all I could manage was to peel off my clothes and fall into bed for an incredibly odd and fitful night of ‘sleep’. We were back up at 8am to head out for whale watching, but I really hadn’t gotten any quality sleep since Thursday night in Trois Riviere. I fought my way through a day of playing tourist before finally getting a good night’s sleep Sunday night after 11pm!

I must say, the entire experience was mentally a huge challenge. I loved the event, but during the run, I definitely found myself wondering if I have the stomach to do another race like this. But, inevitably, as I’m typing this up, I already have my sights on trying my hand at a 100 miler (160km). But not just any 100 miler. Nope. I’m thinking of the Sinister 7 in Alberta! Before I hit ‘register’ on that bad boy though, it’s time for some R&R, and make sure my feet get back to perfect condition. Oh yeah, and it’s also time to start thinking about the winter season! Lots of skiing in my future!

To close off, I put together a couple videos of this race. The first is of course my official race review video. The second one? Well, decided I’d put a short video together about some of the amazing sights around the Charlevoix region, since I am so fond of it :-). Enjoy!

Race Video

Sights of Charlevoix Video

Firing on All Cylinders in the Blue Mountains

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…

Stone Steps and Cold Creeks in Ithaca

Finally! My first trail race of the season! Ok, in fact, it happened over a month ago, but I’ve been rather busy between starting a new job, training, and doing work / renovations at the homestead. The cedar deck is looking mighty fine at this point… But I digress, this post is about the Cayuga Trails 50 Miler. Yup, that’s right, I decided to start with an 80km race this season. It’s part of my decision to focus purely on trail running this year, building up all summer with a range of events to culminate with the Ultra-Trail Harricana 125km race in September, where I need vindication for last year’s DNF. Read on for all the deets on my adventures in and around Ithaca, NY, where the Cayuga Trails race took place.

Before I actually get to the race story, I should mention a few things. First off, as most of you know, I have been dealing with *really* annoying foot issues, including plantar fasciitis, bursitis, bone edema, rolling ankles, etc. As such, at the end of last season, you’ll recall I hobbled my way to a personal worst in a marathon. From there, it was off my feet for months while I awaited results from scans, MRI, etc. to try and get sorted. While I’m not at 100%, things are looking a bit better this year. Once I got the green light to get back into it, I mapped an audacious return to form, and decided that my FIRST race back would be nothing other than the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race (80km)! Notable about this race is the fact that while I have ran in a longer event (a 100km trail run), it was not an all-out effort. And while I had started a 125k race last year, I had to bail shortly before the 80km mark. SO, this would be my first REAL 80K race.

A second notable feature of this race is that it isn’t a totally low-key locals-only kind of event. Nope, it is in fact the USA Track and Field 50 Mile trail running championship event. Yup, that’s right, I was toeing the line with some of the strongest trail runners from across the US vying for a national title. Obviously thoughts of a podium were furthest in my mind, but a strong category showing was my hope (well, that along with actually finishing feeling strong!). With this as my backdrop, as soon as I possibly could, I threw myself into my training, and actually followed a specific training program credited in part to Killian Jornet himself! It was a good mix of hard hill runs, varying pace workouts, speed workouts, really long runs, etc. You know, the kind of thing you SHOULD do when preparing for a season of hard racing. I had decided ad hoc preparation wouldn’t work, and I had to be dedicated. We’ll see how things go throughout the rest of the summer, but so far, so good!

Bacchus Brewing

So, back to Cayuga. Why did I choose it? Well, basically, it was pretty much a perfect combination of timing, location, and the fact that it looked cool and I’d never raced in that area. I’ve driven through Ithaca a number of times, but never stopped long enough to get to know it. Less than 4.5 hours away from my front door, with promises of slot canyons, state parks, and nearby breweries. I was sold. Deanna and I opted to camp the 2 nights down there, and we pretty much lucked out with the weather (we did have to pack up and bail in a hurry on Sunday, but overall, no issues. Also, in fine tradition, on the ride down, I scoped a number of breweries that we stopped in to do some sampling (hello Bacchus Brewing and Hopshire Farm & Brewery), as well as a visit to a VERY well-stocked bottle shop to buy a wide range of beers to bring back. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the Finger Lakes Beverage Center!

So, about the race, what can I say about it? Well, for starters, even though it was the Championship race, it still managed to retain a very relaxed and grass-roots feel to it. Organizers, volunteers, and participants were all awesome to deal with, and an excellent race was put on for us. For swag, we all got a pair of nice farm to feet socks, and a collapsible cup to use for drinks at aid stations. The race was very focused on having a ‘green’ footprint, and did well on that front, including composting at all aid stations, and finish line souvenirs that were made of recycled materials. I will cherish both my finishers metal cup, and metal finishers plate/plaque.

Course Map

The race course was one of the most compact races I’ve ever seen, making it super-friendly for spectators to see and cheer for their favourite runners. It was a 2-loop, ‘bow-tie’ course, meaning that it looked like a figure 8, and we did it twice, visiting the middle part 4 times. This meant we saw some aid stations 4 times during the race, and as far as driving went, Deanna never had to travel more than 5k or so at a time! Logistically, having less aid stations also meant they could be extremely well stocked and staffed, with easy road access for them. However, as a runner, we were never more than 10k between these oases on course. As a result, a large portion of the runners were content to head out with only hand bottles to sustain them over the race.

For my part, I still opted to carry a small pack, so that I could carry my camera and tripod (of course), a hydration pouch, collapsible bottle, my own food, some first aid, and ‘just in case’ foot braces. While it may have been overkill, it gave me comfort knowing I was covered. I guess I’m just more used to ‘rugged, remote’ courses, so I couldn’t imagine stripping it down to only a bottle!

Stairs and Waterfall

And this leads me to comments on the actual course. Situated literally on the edge of town, and traversing between 2 state parks, I was frankly shocked at what was hidden / tucked in the surrounding hills. Looking at a map, you’d be forgiven for assuming the terrain was not challenging. But you’d be wrong. Ithaca has a slogan. “It’s a GORGES place to visit.” Yes, there are towering canyons just out of sight in these parks, with very impressive series of steps (a combination of hand hewn stones and wooden steps). Alongside these canyon sections? Gorgeous cascading water features like Buttermilk Falls and plenty of others. Between these jaw-droppers we were treated to a good variety of trail types, including nice twisty single and double track, sometimes crossing fields, but more often than not, in the woods. There were of course also some forest service type roads which were less interesting, and a TINY bit of pavement, but all in all, a very inviting mix of trails, with nothing super-technical to deal with. It was definitely a course that would favour the fast-footed rather than the sure-footed. Too bad for me, right?

So, race time! Things were slotted to get underway at 6am for the 50 miler, and it did! It was already warm enough to be in shorts and T’s, so there was no need for warm-up gear. In fact, my concern was more about heat later in the day. Luckily, the numerous water crossings en route would help keep that at bay as I’d learn later. I had full intentions of starting at a conservative pace, and just holding that all day. My time goal was 10 hours, netting me an 8km/hr pace for the whole day. I had printed a pace card for reference with all my aid station splits. However, it was extremely hard not to let the spirit run free and just push hard right out of the gate. I felt extremely fresh, based on a proper taper the week before, and definitely didn’t feel I was pushing, even though my pace said otherwise. I decided to ‘run with it’ and see what happened.

Cresting a Hill

The opening 2k or so was flat to moderate before we hit the first set of stairs that went up pretty steeply. I was ready to tackle them all with a vengeance and did so. I found myself at the first aid station (the 5k mark) in seemingly no time flat. I completely bypassed it, in spite of the wonderful spread, and kept hammering along. From here we entered a really great section with lots of amazing climbs and canyon views. It was easy to get lost in the scenery in some spots and lost focus, which would probably be a good thing later on. We also navigated a couple shallow water crossings. Enough to cool the feet off nicely. Realizing just how many times I’d cross water, I was glad I’d opted to use a silicone cream on my feet to minimize the effects of running with wet feet all day. There is nothing worse than getting a bad ‘wrinkly foot’ blister under my foot pad. It can easily hobble me after hours.

After the next aid station we were heading into the most beautiful section of the course for the next 20k, and also crossing the deepest water of the course, with water reaching up to our waists. I’ll admit it, the first time through, I tried skirting and finding a shallower (albeit longer) route around, with success. However, subsequent crossings (we’d cross this 4 times), I went right into the deep part and enjoyed the body chilling effects! I was not alone in this, especially in the afternoon heat. Shortly after the water crossing was also the longest steady hill climb (without stairs). The reward though was a spectacular rim trail along the canyon, first on one side, emerging at Buttermilk Falls State park (where we were actually camping!), then back up and along the other side. It was absolutely stunning.

By now, I had passed the third aid station, and was still making very good time. I was also taking advantage of the very well stocked aid stations, enjoying PB&J sandwiches, boiled salted potatoes, and electrolyte drinks. I skipped the real junk food, but did always grab 1 or 2 gels for the next section. I also decided that the caffeinated ones are pretty much ideal for getting me through each of the sections. I ended up creating a pretty consistent routine between aid stations, and focused on that. I was also starting to see familiar faces along the way, since most runners have strengths and weaknesses, we end up passing and re-passing each other. It gives you something to focus on in different areas, like “I’m just going to catch up to and pass black hat guy on the next hill”… that sort of thing. But they are also great excuses to chat and get your mind off the running if you need it. Most people are willing to at least tolerate a little chit-chat along the course, but you have to know when to talk and when to shut up J. I liked motivating / joking a lot on tough uphills. Not talking to anyone in particular, but getting people to laugh and not think too hard about what they were doing. I *think* it was appreciated on the 2nd time up the really hard hill.

Running the Lonely Trails

So get this: I’m arriving at the turnaround point, the 40.5k mark in the race. My time? 4:29!!! Yikes, I was essentially 30 minutes ahead at this point, and at that pace, would bust my goal by an hour!!! I was simultaneously excited about being that fast and petrified that I’d gone too hard. It didn’t take long to learn which it was, as I had a SERIOUS drop in energy for the next 10k or so. I felt depleted and started really worrying that I had blown up. At the next aid station, I thought hard about my nutrition and hydration needs, and made a couple adjustments, adding salt pills to the mix to ward off cramping, and adding more fresh fruit (watermelon, bananas, oranges) to the mix. After the initial 10k slump, I got my groove back, and started picking things back up. Nowhere near my first lap speed, but definitely back into the ‘needed’ speed territory. The thing about having the pace card was that I knew at almost any point exactly how much time I had in the bank. I had flashbacks to the time I needed to finish a marathon in 3:10 to qualify for Boston, and what I had to do at the finish to meet the goal.

The next 20-25 km went pretty well, with me wasting NO time anywhere at aid stations. I’d come in basically either yelling out my ‘order’ of what I needed (not rudely, but they actually WANT to help you at the aid stations), or grabbing it directly on my way through, pausing only long enough to re-fill my bottle before trotting off. No point in stopping to eat, I’d just shovel things in as I kept moving (forward progress above all else). This left the final 5-10k of the course. I knew I was cutting things close, but was most definitely starting to bump the needle on E in my tank. Knowing it was so close, I dug deep, blocked all else out, and veritably started FLYING again where I could. I ignored any pain (there is ALWAYS pain after running these distances in punishing terrain).Remember, this isn’t flat terrain, but lots of up and down.

Running Strong

As I got closer and closer to the final finish, I recognized the landmarks, and could tell I should make it provided I kept it up. I desperately scarfed down 2 caffeinated gels in the closing 5k. I also foolishly ran out of liquids, so had to run through knowing I could cramp if I wasn’t careful. Lucky for me, I made it. Official time: 9:57:24. With a high 5 from the race director, I crossed the line, collected my cup and plate, and was welcomed by Deanna, who had been shadowing me all day at the aid stations cheering me on. For my efforts, I was rewarded with 47th overall, 38th male, and a very satisfying 5th in my age group.

FIlling up on Beer at Finish

Directly after finishing, I got to enjoy some excellent BBQ food for racers, and wash it down with a special beer brewed by Ithaca Brewing just for the race, the Lucifer’s Steps IPA, in honour of one of the longest and trickiest stair sections of the race. After hanging out for the awards, we returned to camp, I grabbed a shower, and we headed back out, this time to the actual Taproom of Ithaca Brewing, where we had junky food and sampled lots more beers, along with a lot of other runners. All in all, an amazing day of racing in great company and with a great atmosphere.

Funny enough, I know that when I had crossed the line, I mused that I really didn’t want to do that again, but as I type this, I’m actually really looking forward to my next 50 miler, which is in under a week! Can I improve on 10 hours? I don’t really know. Perhaps if I hold it back a bit more at the start, and keep the nutrition, hydration, and pace right, I can pull off 9.5 hours, but it all depends on the course. Stay tuned here to see how things work out!! And till then, I know I’ve been slow updating the site, but rest assured, I’m not gone, and there will be lots of future adventures! Till then, get out there and have some fun! Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, have a watch of the video I put together for this race!