(Grab a Pepsi, she’s a long one)
I’m sitting naked in the front seat of my car, it’s dark outside and I can hear the rain rasping at the roof of the vehicle. The car smells musky and the heater is blasting my exposed skin with warm canned air. I look over at the mound of muddy shoes littering the passenger side foot cavity of the car, assessing my quiver and the state of my legs, trying to figure out what sort of support I feel like. My suit pants and tie are in a crumpled heap on the passenger seat. It’s the main reason I buy iron free work clothes. I peal on my tights, contorting myself in the tight space around the steering wheel, I put on a long sleeved t-shirt and zip up the brightly coloured jacket. Finally, I grab some gloves, my headlamp and a toque. I take a quick look outside, giving myself a temporary out, before opening the door, turning on my lamp and making my way stiff legged uphill into the woods.
This scene loosely describes my past two months of running. While I’ve enjoyed most of my outings, a lot of them have been equally grim. I do most of my running after work, alone in the dark. I love the fact that I have time to run, but I also resent the fact that I often can’t see more than what the beam of light on my head allows. To be honest, after a long year of running and racing, with some great results, I was feeling a little burned out. I was training hard, putting in lots of miles, but it often felt ridiculous. When I would go over to the Island on weekends to visit my wife, I would say hello and then ditch her for a long run. She deserves wife of the year awards for being so understanding. Doing what I know I needed to do to prepare for the TNF50-mile Championships was getting harder and harder. When I finally boarded the plane on Wednesday night, I knew that I was fit and ready to race, but I was also looking forward to a break.
After a night in downtown San Francisco, in a beautiful quirky hotel right by Chinatown, I moved into a houseboat in Sausalito. While the place was charming and a very cool experience, I can safely safe that houseboat living isn’t for me. The gusting Pacific winds rattled my rickety room all night and being a light sleeper, I had two nights of very disturbed sleep. Still, I was able to practice my French, Spanish, Kiwi and South African with the Salomon international team and geeked out on upcoming shoe models.
Along with some of the other International team members, I helped lead a 6 or so mile community run, along the hills of the Marin headlands, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on Thursday afternoon. The run was on some of the trails that would be in the race and having never visited the area before, it was not only fun to meet new people, but it was useful to get a sense of what the terrain felt and looked like. The trails were hard packed, rutted and exposed, but also very runable. It was also nice to be able to take in some of the views, with the city towers poking out above the hills, to see the rugged coastline and the contour of the terrain that we would be racing on visible all around me. As I said previously, I had initially come to the race excited to race against a world class field, but became increasingly motivated by the landscape as well.
After another sleepless night on Thursday, I woke up on Friday feeling like a sack of hammers. I lay in bed as long as I could, but I just felt horrible. I had a headache, my sinuses were congested and I couldn’t fathom the thought of running 50-miles the next day. I convinced myself these were just extreme “taper twinges”, dragged myself out of the bed, had some coffee and went for a trot along a bike path. Luckily, my legs felt quite good, but I kept it short, went home and continued to feel rotten all day. Apart from going to package pick-up, I was anti-social and retreated into myself, trying not to worry about how much harder the next day would be if I was feeling off.
Finally, after a much too early wake up call on Saturday morning and the usual pre-race rituals of bouncing around, trying to wake up and saying what would come across as largely insincere hellos on other occasions to friends I haven’t seen since the previous gathering at a finish line, I found myself rolling along a rain rutted dirt road heading into the hills, surrounded by some of the best trail ultra runners around. The same cool Pacific breeze that had kept me up the previous nights was still gusting, but the sky was clear and we all bobbed down the path illuminated by a sea of undulating headlamps. There was some jostling as 20 or more of us squeezed onto the narrow gravel, the pace was quick, but mostly realistic, with a few seemingly inconsequential lamps moving quickly up the trail. I was struck by how dark it was.
I scanned the crowd to make sure that I was with all the main contenders and I settled in, trying to find shelter from the wind as we made our way uphill. There was some light banter in the group and I commiserated with eventual race winner and lawyer, Mike Wolfe, about fitting training in with life. His calm, friendly demeanour, incredible results, grinder approach to racing and similar life situation have been a huge inspiration to me. It was comforting to hear that he also struggles with the dual personality existence that a lot of athletes have to live.
As expected, we yo-yoed along in a pack of 15-20 runners for the first 15 miles, biding our time for the sun to rise. Some of the turns on the course were confusing and the odd runner would miss a corner before the group would call them back. I was happy to let others take the lead. Unfortunately, I can’t chalk this up to any newfound wisdom, or a smart strategy, it was largely dictated by my stomach. Although the pace was solid, it wasn’t excessively fast, but I continued to feel horrible. My stomach was in knots and my legs felt heavy. I would drift through the back of pack on each climb and then roll back into it on the downhills. Due to three days of steady wind, there was a lot of blown out debris on the course, which caught my feet a few times, but it was mostly smooth trail.
I tried to enjoy the facts that I was trading places with Michael Wardian, Geoff Roes, Dakota Jones, Galen Burrell, Rickey Gates, fellow Canuck Ryan Day and a host of other very talented athletes. I expected that this pack would eventually detonate, but it was incredibly novel to snake my way along the switchbacks in a conga line of runners. I’ve spent an awful lot of miles racing alone this year.
Uncharacteristically (Knee Knacker runners insert comment here), I had a really bad sense of where the course was going and since I was feeling horrendous, I had no idea that we had started the longest climb of the course. I was also surprised to realize that the sun was finally up. It would continue to be a perfect sun day for the rest of the race. I really wasn’t with it mentally at this point. I tried to hold on to the group as we zigzagged up, but my stomach was failing. Since we were less than 2.5 hours into the race, the reality of the day becoming a long grind started to set in and I watched the group disappear up the climb. I convinced myself to run as steady a pace as I could manage until 4 hours and then I would allow myself to reassess how the day was going, so I plugged away.
Somewhere up the climb I ran past an aide station and saw Anton Krupicka (you know a race is stacked when even the spectators are stud runners), I whined something to him and he told me to keep getting calories in, which I did. It was sound advice. I sucked back a gel and almost instantly puked. I washed out my mouth with water and I tried to gag down another gel. It didn’t taste too good and I wretched again as I ran along. I’m not sure what it was, but at that point, something seemed to clear in my stomach, things settled and I almost instantly started to feel better. My legs seemed to come alive and I found breathing much easier and my attitude took a 180.
Right around that time, I noticed Tim Olson charging up behind me. I remember being told that he was a good climber, so I made it a goal to try and stay ahead of him. Together, we slowly began reeling in other runners and I started to enjoy the day a bit more. When the lead group came roaring past us on the out & back section, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they weren’t miles up the road. It also looked like there were more and more victims from the fast pace and I settled into trying to pick up some shrapnel from the group.
The thought of gels continued to make me sick, so I filled my water bottle with Pepsi and nursed the bottle away. I was told quite clearly by many volunteers that it was Pepsi not Coke as I screamed into aide stations yelling for the brown sugar water which was sustaining me. I ate the odd container of Shot Bloks and sucked back a few salt pills. Endurance racing is often about problem solving and my stomach was clearly being a problem, but once again, Coke, sorry, Pepsi, worked magic for me and my stomach settled. I was able to get in some calories and fluids that way, fuelling myself along.
Tim and I continued to roll down the trail together. We both commented on how enjoyable it was to run with each other and we started cruising along and we continued passing people. Pretty soon I realized we were into the top-10 and moving well. We both assumed that one or two other runners would probably come back to us, but we both also have enough respect for everyone else out there not to necessarily expect it to happen. I continued to monitor my body and push up against my limit. I was happy with how everything was feeling and I really started to enjoy the day.
Somewhere in the 30-35 mile range, we began to mesh in with the 50-km runners as we ran through the forest. People were kind enough to clear the track as we ran past, Tim shadowing me the whole way. I passed Ryan, who was having a phenomenal debut 50-mile race, but who was also beginning to hurt a bit and thought I saw Michael Wardian up the trail. I reminded myself not to get too excited, since there was lots of running left, but I definitely felt a surge. As I passed Michael, I caught a glimpse of Geoff and another runner up ahead and got another jolt of excitement. I caught Geoff as we headed up some stairs and he told me that he was having a rough go of things on the climbs, but he also told me the guy ahead was hurting too. It’s always too bad to see champions like Michael and Geoff struggling, but like champs, they kept plugging away and I wasn’t going to wait around for one of them to get a second wind.
As I finished the climb, my French support team, began to chant my name, which, once again, lifted my motivation. I was now in third and feeling quite good. I was getting time splits to Mike and Dakota up the road. I knew that they were a ways up there and were battling it out. I realized that my only hope of catching either of them was that their head to head racing would lead one of them to crack. Not surprisingly, neither did.
I definitely struggled at times in the closing miles. My quads were sore, I was getting a bit tired and I was caught off guard by a steep exposed climb, which had a strange camber. Not knowing how far into the race I was, I assumed that I would be running for about 7hours and budgeted my effort accordingly. However as I came into the last aide station, I remembered reading that it came about 45 miles into the race and realized that I’d be finishing closer to 6:40, which, once again, was a big mental lift. Suddenly having 20 minutes knocked off your run time in a race on tired legs is a wonderful gift. I couldn’t see Tim, Geoff, or Michael charging behind me, so I settled back into my steady strong rhythm and tried to make the miles tick by as quickly as possible, peaking around the corners trying to see if Mike or Dakota might be up the road.
As I neared the finish line and realized that I’d finish 3rd, I was ecstatic. I honestly didn’t know if I’d be walking 30 or more miles at the start of the day and I was happy to be able to pull myself out of a nasty slump and turn things around. It’s hard to explain to non runners, but sometimes your body magically sorts itself out over the course of a long run. That was definitely my experience on the day.
While I would have loved to have been in the mix with the front group for longer and especially duking it out with Mike and Dakota up front in their epic battle, I ran the race that my body allowed me to on the day and I feel like I did my hours of solo night running proud. It was a great way to finish what I can only describe as a dream season.
After racing my first 50ks last year and finishing my first 50 miler earlier this year, I realize that I still have a lot left to experience in the ultra world. I’m really excited and curious to try my hand at a 100-miler or two next year and to keep experiencing new races in interesting places &/or against top level competition. But before I sit down and hash out a plan for 2012, I’m going to kick back and enjoy what’s left of this year. I’ll let my shoes keep stinking up my car for a bit longer as I dust off my skis and trade in the rain for some snow sports for a little while and cross my fingers for some Western States lottery luck.
Race results available here
Arc'teryx Motus Crew SS
Arc'teryx Accelero hat
Salomon exo team shorts
Salomon exo calf guards
Salomon Slab 4 Softground shoes
Cliff Bloks (2 strands)
Cliff shots (maybe 4)
Overstims gels(maybe 3)
Coke/Pepsi (4 water bottles full)
10 salt pills