Reckless Raven 50 miler

I quit ultra running for ever for sure during  Reckless Raven 50 miler. It was a relief and a sadness. And maybe what got me through to the end of my most miserable 😖 race. 

It started with Lynne’s journey to the arctic, a long Canadian dream. Various friends signed up to join her and, for multiple different reasons, reneged. So In the end, it was just the two of us. I found a race in  Whitehorse that I could do en route and we booked 4 nights at a chic mountain bike guiding hotel (Boreale: we highly recommend it). 

Lynne at the Arctic Circle on our trip to Inuvik (post race).

Lynne drove from Squamish to Whitehorse and I flew up four days later to join her. My past is in the Arctic and Lynne loves the open spaces and the quiet to say nothing of the immense vistas. 

Lewes Lake close to Boreale Logde

On the road to Dawson City (after the race)

Building up to the race I had convinced myself that the trails were easier than in Squamish. And that the terrain would lead me to my fastest time for the 50 mile distance. Since I had only done one previous 50 mile race two years ago, I did not have much data. Gary Robbins, my coach, had warned me that this would be my hardest race ever, that I would be chasing cut off‘s, and that I would be “talking to my brother“. But I worked hard to convince him that the slow times of the previous first year it had run, were an indication of the less fit Northern mountain runner contingent. Ha. 

In all of my mental preparation, I had also neglected to factor in the fact that your legs don’t work well after six or eight hours of running, and that this course had about 25 km of non-trail. That’s right: no trail at all, just tundra. Tundra with line of sight flag marking - apparently. 

We loved Whitehorse, and I was super excited about the race. On race morning, I even did a little dance to Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling blaring from the speakers.

All smiles before the start.

Race plan was perfectly executed for the first 20 km. I knew there was a very steep hill about 10 k in, and I was prepared for the 45° slope. And it was that steep! We fell backward trying to climb it. Luckily I had brought poles which would be a key factor later.
In the first 20 km - already high above Whitehorse

When I had envisaged the no-trail section, I had imagined flattish Moss and some rocks. But it started out with a lot of dead fall, little gravel slides, and extremely uneven ground. Then it progressed to the tundra with no trees, but instead of flattish Moss, we got big hummocks up to 2 feet tall. Stepping on one was like stepping on a marshmallow and your foot just kept sinking. In parts, the on-trail section was rocky but then there would be big gaps between the rocks where you could fall.

Deadfall and other ground hazards in the beginning of the no trail section.

Luckily for me I fell in with two other woman. One was from Saskatchewan, and the other turned out to be from Squamish! Squamish and I took turns leading and the other one would look for the flags in the ground. But the line of sight flagging must’ve been for giants because we often spent several minutes searching in every direction for flags.

Lichen, berry plants, bogs and rocks.

It was incredibly beautiful as you can see from the pictures and in my head, as we ran it, well actually hiked it, I kept a running dialogue with my mother and my sister. I described in detail the smell of the yellow lichen as it crunched beneath our feet. Such an exquisite unique dry smell combined with cold air in my nostrils. That won’t evoke memories for many people, but it does in my family. Because we grew up in the eastern Arctic but with the same lichen and rocks and tree-less windy cold.

Glacial rock deposits litter the landscape. Flags not in evidence.

Later I found out that it took us three hours to navigate that section of trail which was only 14 km. As we descended another no trail section to reach the next aid station, all of that focus and frustration of not finding the flags as we hiked the tundra, funneled into a resigned despondency. Combined with my increasingly heavy legs, and the fact that we were not halfway changed the mood for the first time. I should mention the heroes that manned that aid station. They were literally surrounded by a shroud of bugs  as they stood in front of aluminum trays full of sugar.

My pals in the Alpine. Squamish (on the left) and I led and looked for flags. Saskatchewan finished ahead of both of us :)

Suddenly I didn’t feel excited about running the second “runnable“ part of the course anymore. And I really wasn’t enjoying my gels at all. I thought about trying Coke but decided that it was too early. Rolling into the halfway mark, where I encountered a giant purple bunny with a white tummy, raised my spirits. A super kind guy called Mario helped me with everything. He refilled my pack, my water, quizzing me about Whistler Alpine Meadows, my next planned race. He is signed up to do it as well, but had suffered a concussion and his training wasn’t going well.

I rolled out of the aid  station feeling much better and saw my Squamish friend with her husband who had laid out a giant buffet on a towel and given her a chair to sit in. Oh no! This can’t be good, I thought to myself. 

For the next 10 km or so, I was OK, mostly ran, hiked some, but didn’t feel that enthusiasm that usually tides me over. By the time that I got to the 48 km aid station and a second River Crossing, I just wasn’t feeling it. 

Second major river crossing. We crossed the long way.

For the next 12 km, I ran by myself. This section really is runnable! But I didn’t run large sections of it, which was my undoing mentally and physically. For one thing, I couldn’t force myself to eat another gel. They were repugnant. And I got lost on another high, alpine suction with no trees and no flags! At that point I remembered that I had the course on my watch, and started navigating using the watch. Later I talked to Squamish again, and she had sat down and cried in that section because it was not navigable. The watch saved me.

Now my main trouble was running. I was having immense difficulty making myself run. A chant would roll through my head: you must run. And then I would make myself run for maybe two or three minutes. Followed by some stumbling walking. Everything felt leaden. Later I would realize, that I needed to eat more.

Runnable if you still have legs to run.

I reached the final cut off of 10 hours at an aid station where I allowed myself a quarter cup of Coke. But I didn’t know that that was the cut off point. I thought it was the aid station ahead of me. I got onto another steep ascent and started to panic. I only had 20 minutes, then 10 minutes, then three minutes to make the cut off at 4 PM. Then the cut off elapsed and there was no aid station in sight. 

Emotions coursed through me. I was humiliated and embarrassed that I couldn’t even make the cut off. I felt like this was another sign that I should quit ultra running (I had made the decision to quit some kilometers ago). But was then oddly relieved. This misery, this perpetual purgatory, would end quickly. Oh thank God! I can endure the embarrassment and sadness but this, this is unmanageable.

I passed a relay runner who was suffering as well and we greeted each other with empathy and encouragement. Just ahead was another runner and I caught up with her. She delivered the bad news that we had gone through the checkpoint quite a while ago. Lucky for me, I had someone to help me through the third and final no-trail section. 

We flew into aid station #7/8 and I held out my water bottles: Coke please! We ran out of Coke two hours ago they told me. My face fell and I stared into their eyes meaningfully. You ran out of Coke? Here? The aid station captain told me that she had phoned several hours ago to request more Coke. Race HQ had told her that they had no one to run up supplies to their aid station. I remembered that at the race briefing someone asked a pointed question about whether or not there would be Coke at the final aid stations. Yes was the response. 

I hadn’t been able to eat anything for quite a while and we had to do a big circuit around a very windy, desolated Peak called Blown Away and then loop back to the same aid station. Somehow I made it around Blown Away, but when I passed the aid station for the last time, I stayed on the other side of the road, you know, to let them know how terrible they were.

There was a descent on a gravel road and I should have been able to chew up that distance to the next and final aid station, but bib number 116 and I were walk/running. This wasn’t in my race plan. At the final aid station Bib # 116’s family was there for the third time cheering us on. I told them what an amazing runner she was going to be: this was her first race ever! And her mom told me that they were at least 15 people behind us. Which was weirdly cheerful news. The best news was that the aid station had Coke and I filled both my bottles with a mix of water and Coke.

The last 10 K or so were runnable trails with some rocks and roots but runnable. With the Coke and freedom from ever having to race again I was able to jog most of it. 

Bib# 116 deferring to my greater experience ran or walked in exact tandem with me as we clambered down the final 10 km. If only she knew how badly I had botched this one.

The last 500 m.

I ran right to the
🏁 finish line - 25 min before the final cut off to kind cheers. I had been visualizing Lynne there for hours. Now finally it was over and tears coursed across my grimy face. I sat at a picnic table crying and another kind soul brought me a veggie Chili. Mario was there too hanging a medal around my neck. Quite a few people suggested I sit in their portable ice bath. But I was done suffering. 

Done suffering.

Later Lynne told me about two grizzled older fellows who had come in before me. They lowered themselves into the ice bath with one of them keeping up a steady complaint about how hard the course had been. Until the other guy grunted “suck it up buttercup”.

Tears at the end. Note my veggie chile and the unappreciated ice bath behind me.

Let me say one word about this course: RESPECT (and beauty).  Oh and they changed the course from last year, substituting some of the ATV and FSR tracks for gnarly (and deeply muddy) downhill mountain bike trails. The distance was increased to 83 km (exceeding 50 miles) and 450 extra meters of climbing were snuck in! Female winner came in at 10.5 hours which speaks volumes. I took 14.5 hours which also speaks volumes - but more about hubris. 

The night after the race, during dinner at our lodge, a troop of woman arrived and checked in. They were laughing and joking jovially until they saw me. How are you doing, one tentatively asked me. Great I replied. Why do you ask?  We met you at aid station 7. Yes, worst aid station ever I said. Just then I realized that the whole Aid Station crew was arraigned in front of me. Lucky for me, they burst into laughter. 

I tried to quit ultra running for two more days. But Lynne wouldn’t let me. 

Reckless Raven 50 miler. I’d do it again. 

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