September 2016

I have always wanted to run (and bike and swim). Years ago, when my nephew Max was 3 or 4, I remember him running giant circles around the rug in his Hong Kong apartment. “Watch me run,” he shouted. Right away, I recognized something in him that was familiar. Because I have always wanted to run and keep running. But my mind and social programming held me back.

It started when I was little. I was always too loud and too heavy footed. Recently, I read a New York Times interview with Amy Schumer in which she said that “
My whole life, I felt like people wanted the girls to be a little quieter.” Me too.  I found my way into triathlon but had this idea that I would collapse if I did a full Ironman. Somehow I would suddenly become fragile and stay that way for life. I had images of myself changed instantly from tall and strong to thin and frail (with a faint tremor). That programming was reinforced by more social code as I got older. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “you’re not 29 anymore you know” ...

If that social code was a
push factor,  the popularity of Ultras become a pull factor. When my 20+ year triathlon career started to hit the skids after a concussion in 2012, I was inexorably drawn to ultras. First, I started reading the blogs, following the big races like Western States 100 and Hardrock, watching the amateur films and then BAM, I was hooked.

But I still had the hard-wired fear of physical disintegration, like the distance would suck me up and spit me out forever weak and compromised. There are many things that conspired to re-write that script. But probably the most powerful was the training program that my coaches (Eric and Gary at Ridgeline Athletics) implemented. By mid summer, I had run several runs over 4 hours and up to 6-1/2 hours and, hey, I felt fine. I was a little tired some days but every time I ran longer, I felt stronger. The opposite of what my code reported to me.

On race morning, after a three week taper, I was busting with energy. I realized that I had never ever tapered properly before; I was always hanging onto the remnants of the Build fatigue. But this morning, I felt like a machine. Everything was moving perfectly … despite a very early start with Hector (dog) asking to go out at 2:55 am :(

The race starts at Alice Lake at 6 am: the perfect time to be alive in the mountains. 

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Lynne was an amazing roadie and cheerful despite morning not being her favourite time.

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Me, I was filled with anticipation, not dread but  real pleasure at the thought of running all day. i was born for this.


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The runners were all infected.

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The roadies, not so much :)


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Gary (my coach and the RD) gave us a send-off speech. He explicitly mentioned that music devices with ear buds turned down are allowed. And many other rules. He was amazingly chipper considering that he just had his first baby this week. 



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I met Brittney (another of Eric and Gary’s athletes) at the lake’s edge. We had run part of the Orientation Run together a few weeks ago (until she passed me and ran much more quickly to the end). She had torn her calf and was aiming to just get to the first Aid Station at Cliff’s Corners. Weirdly, I pulled away and joined the bigger crowd as she said calf pull. It just had a bad ring to it.

Finally, after months of build up, Gary counted down  and we started. The race begins at Four Lakes trail. It is a flattish trail with tall conifers filtered by light. God’s country. Then, before we were 1 km into the run, music from a portable device started blaring. A country song. Now, I am a rare human being who actually likes some country music - but not at 6 am in the middle of a dark forest. There was much muttering and some loud huffing about “should tell him to turn it down.” But none of us did. I was behind the heavy-set playlist dude who was running 2 abreast with his girlfriend. But I squeezed by, determined to escape the noise pollution.  I apologized as I slowly pulled ahead, telling others “I am just trying to get away from the music.” Just about everything said “me too, that is why I am here” (meaning ahead of where they were). 

I found a spot to settle in behind an orange-shirted 50/50 runner. Oh yes, my lame 50 km race was preceded by a 50 mile race on the Saturday. And there was an option to run both back to back, thus the 50/50. The famous Ginger Runner made a youtube about his experience running the 50/50 in 2014: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r-H9iyPZds
Maybe it was coincidence but in 2014, there were 34 50/50 runners; in 2015, there were 84. Or maybe it is just so cool. 

Lynne is a student of ultra running - and honestly understands aspects of it better than me. She says that the 50/50 is a perfect way to test yourself and prepare for your first 100 miler. I am pretty certain that I am not ever going to run a 100 (Lynne disagrees) but honestly the 50/50 - as a stand-alone - is pretty alluring.

Anyway, there I was in my first puny ultra, perfectly tucked in behind orange shirt and a guy with really strong calves and a Nathan water pack and everything was easy for the next 5 or 6 km. We ran at ease and hiked the steep pitch up to Ed’s bypass. It was cool and the air was fragrant. The only disturbances were shouts from behind about the terrible music and more muttering about “would somebody tell him to turn it down.” We reached the flowy trail into Cliff’s Corners and the first Aid Station when - out of the blue - I tripped and fell. An easy fall but as I tripped, I felt my calf go into a full spasm.

My calves went into total spasm once before - right after the
finish of a half marathon on roads - way back in 2005. My Mom and Dad were spectating and witnessed the revolt of the calves. Both calves went into high muscle definition and I fell to the ground because I could’t stand up. This time, only one calf bolted and I didn’t fall down. But I couldn’t run either. There was a heavy rock in my right calf stopping the other muscles from working. 

The philosopher of science, Donna Haraway, wrote that “binaries are good to think with.” They really are. I had two choices: I could stop and pull out (the Aid Station was right there) or I could keep going. No contest. I stopped to pee at the AS, ignored the food and drinks (contrary to Gary’s instructions), and started walking along the Forest Service Road towards the start of the the steepest climb of the race. I tried intermittent jogging but there was no give in the calf. All of my running companions were now out of eyesight so I looked for new backs to focus on. Suddenly there was the music man and his erstwhile companion. Got to go.

I started up Galactic Scheisse knowing that I could not run (uphill was way way harder than downhill on my calf). But nor could anyone else around me. We all had to hike. My new plan was to stay at goal heart rate while hiking. I euphemisized that at least I would not go out too hard; I was literally held back by my body. 

A therapist once told me not to worry about the “big one” because we don’t know what it will be, so we worry about the wrong things.  I had visualized how to cope with many challenges that might face me during this run including extreme fatigue, nausea etc. But not this one. As Ann Trason (14 x winner of the Western States 100) said “ultra-running is about problem solving."

I have run Galactic several times before, not as many times as I should have (re: very remote with bears and cougars and I mostly run alone), but enough to know that you can have bad experiences on it. When I did the SQ50 orientation run, for instance, Galactic was shrouded in enormous horse flies and I was terribly nauseous. It was a death march. This time, however, only  my calf hurt. I was filled with energy and far from despairing.

But then the music crept back into my consciousness. It was loud and tinny and  frankly very irritating. ARRGHHH. I hiked faster and faster but it followed me propagating itself along the forest trail. Suddenly, I heard someone yell “what makes you think we all want to listen to your music?” The music guy shouted “I paid my money like everyone else.” Somehow his talking about money made me furious. I yelled back down the mountain louder than anyone else possibly could “TURN IT THE F**K OFF.” And suddenly there was quiet. A conga line of runners looked down the path at each other with relief and smiles. And then he shouted “the rudest bunch of people EVER.”
:)

At the top, I had caught up with the calves with the Nathan backpack and we found ourselves with a 70 year old guy who had run the Squamish Stormy 100 (precursor to the SQ 50) and he regaled us with tales from the dawn of ultra running.

The descent from Galactic is very technical but can be run. I slipped by people and took off with several runners on my heels. Down and down and down and then a cloud of runners blew past me including Brittney. She was still in the race !

By the second AS, I had run out of water (totally predictable) so loaded up and motored into Quest.


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Lynne was waiting for me with water and nutrition. I changed watches ( making two beginner errors) and doused my hair with water.

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My game face is pretty scary !

There is a steep descent from Quest and I was lame again so I walked it and jogged where I could until the FSR up to the CLIMB. The Climb is like its name. 8 km of easy peasy single track UP. I have run it more than a dozen times, maybe two dozen. It is bar none my favourite run in Squamish. When we talked on the phone the week before the race, Gary had told me that I would be walking the Climb. No, I said, I would run it as I usually do. Well, I walked it - though as fast as I could. I caught up to orange shirt again and he tucked in behind me chatting breezily even though he had already run 50 miles (80 km) the day before. He lived in Corvallis, OR, had run the HURT 100 in HI and told me stories of races and explained principles of farming. All good. At the top, we saw the same woman who had been the course marshall when I did SOTF in May. I showed orange shirt the stream behind her where we could wet our hair and cool off. 

Then we started down Angry Midget. The Climb typically takes me 1:15 to run up; Angry Midget takes me 15 minutes to get to the bottom again. That is how precipitous it is. On this day though, my legs had turned to wooden pegs. There was no give in my muscles and, because my calf was still frozen, I was using my hip and hamstrings way too much and the attachments on my lateral knee  seized as a result. I stopped to massage them. Orange shirt wisely slipped by me and flew down AM. I clambered down to the next AS feeling quite depleted. I did notice Humphrey acting as a course marshall. He had volunteered with me last year at SQ50 so I waved a much more chipper hello than I felt.

At the AS buffet, a strange drink with a viscous quality and almost no colour beckoned. It had a sign in front of it saying HEED. What is that? I asked the AS volunteers. Electrolytes, they said. I reached for a cup, then another. Everything about this HEED was perfect and felt like an elixir. I took off freshly energized. At the time, I didn’t know that I was taking in calories - as well as electrolytes. Boy, did I need them….

The road up to STP is really really steep so I hiked but once I got onto STP, I passed several people who had passed me on the Climb. I am not a very competitive person (well, in races anyway). As Lynne says, I lack
fire in the belly at the end of races, often letting people pass me at the 11th hour. But this time, I felt really good flying by a few folks. 

Gary told me that Bonsai - which is exposed and steep (what is a synonym for steep?) - would be hard. He told me to hike it and remember that it is only 20 minutes. So I did and then I was back in my beloved dark forest on the trail called Somewhere Over There. I have run SOT several times and, even on weekends, never ever encountered anyone. This time, I was with two guys. We hammered as much as we could. Now everyone was cramping so the playing field was levelling out. I remembered the Patagonia hashtag on Twitter #Sufferbetter. I was wondering where I could get that t-shirt.

As we emptied onto the FSR leading to the last AS, I caught up to Brittney - who had made it way way past the first Aid Station. It was awesome to see her because, no matter what, she always has something encouraging and positive to say. And I knew that she had also suffered. Bob Dylan has a little known song, Brownsville Girl, in which he sings “funny how people who suffer together have a better connection.” Everyone at that last AS was suffering and we were all kind, generous and encouraging to each other. As if ultra running brings out the best in us.

Gary had given me a lot of good advice about pacing as well as nutrition. He had warned me not to start in on the Coke too early. And I had waited until now. First, I polished off two beakers of HEED (newly discovered nectar of runners), then I reached for the
Coke. Was there ever a more perfect beverage? I am not a frequent Coke drinker; the last time I  had Coke was at the Half Ironman in Hawaii in 2013. As it went down, I remembered why it was so special. I handed my Salomon flask to the AS volunteer and asked for Coke and water. There are 10 km left, she said, don’t you want two flasks? No, I said.

No more time, I ripped out of there, and hit The Far Side trail running. Gary had said I wouldn’t run Crumpit Woods except S&M connector. It was literally the only thing he was wrong about. I ran everything except the steepest pitches, ramming my calf muscles into the ground. I caught a woman from Virginia, here with her fiancee who ran the 50 miler. She had passed me on STP but now we formed a little line and passed a couple of others. Two people sprinted by us at one point but, on the whole, we overtook more. Eric had advised me to run Crumpit Woods a second time before the race and I had reluctantly followed his advice, getting lost and wet in the rain. Now, I suddenly remembered all the trails. With the coke coursing through my veins, I didn’t get more energy, just more focus. Remember how much you want this, I told myself.

There is a final killer climb called Mountain of Phlegm. My running companion had heard the scary tales of Mtn of Phlegm, how it knocks out stronger runners than us, and kept saying “this must be it.” But it wasn’t. As Gary had warned, Crumpit Woods is really long. I was able to reassure her that actually MOP was nothing compared to what we had already done. Finally, we approached the beast and ascended. There was a lone guy at the top acting as a marshall. And then it was all downhill.

Only problem, my legs were cooked. Jessica from Virginia passed me and I hobbled down the stairs into Smoke Bluffs parks lowering myself with my arms on the bannisters. It is  hard to describe how steep those stairs are. Suffice it to say that the cliffs that the stairs descend are 90˚ and crawling with climbers practicing their vertical pitches.

We were invisible ghosts to them, weird and ghoulish creatures 9 hours into a self-inflicted trial. At the bottom of Fool’s Gold, there had been a sign hand written on big yellow wooden board: “you are stronger than this challenge and this challenge will make you stronger.” I remembered it now and turned the words over in my mind. I thought about the person who had hiked down there with the sign for their person. 

And BAM, I was on the flat running past an unfamiliar world of everyday life when I came upon another sign on the same yellow wood. Later, I asked Lynne to drive by it and take a picture.


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Whoever put that sign there, thank you - cause it helped a lot of runners. 

When you watch race vids, people always cry at the end. I had thought about it and decided that I wouldn’t cry. But I did. All of the determination and effort to carry me from km 8 to 50 with my calf in spasm flowed out in tears. 

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To get that hug from Gary at the finish, it was amazing. He hugs all the finishers (because he is an amazing RD) and each one is special and meaningful.

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I told him the short version of the calf story and then embraced Lynne. Whenever it got really hard during the race, I had visualized that post race hug with Lynne. And here it was.


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And then Fred, Gary’s Dad hugged me. That was special because Fred is also from Newfoundland and we had connected over that - on this far coast - when I volunteered at the registration on Friday. 

As I sat down, a dog licked my face. “You are a sight for sore eyes,” I told him through my tears. 

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Our friend, Anik, had asked Lynne approximately what time I would be finishing. When I was on SOT suffering, I kept thinking “Lynne will forgive me if something happens but I have to finish if Anik and the kids are coming.” And they did - which was really meaningful.

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And Anik took a photo of my fully redeemed roadie :)


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My finishing time was 9:41. My official goal time was under 10 hours but my secret squirrel goal time was 9:03. Would I have run faster without the calf strain? Maybe, but maybe there is always something to make it harder and really test you. That is why we do it. 

I chatted with Eric (my other coach) and saw Brittney come in. That was amazing. Then we drove home. I went to bed at 7:45 and slept for 10 hours. And you know what, 2 days later, I am  fine. I didn’t lose all of my strength, or wither away. You know what: I am stronger for this challenge. 

Appendix 1:
 During the race, I was thinking that I might not run another Ultra but now I have two planned for next season :) As well as a steep, technical22 km mountain race this September…. 

Appendix 2: Some technical notes for the sports geeks… feel free to ignore. 

My Tomtom GPS watch only has a battery life of about 7.5 hours. So I have two (fairly normal for endurance athletes). Lynne handed me my second watch at the Quest AS where she crewed me. But I forgot to turn off my first watch… that was the beginner’s mistake. So it recorded her walk to the parking lot, her drive home top pick up Hector and her drive with him to Alice Lake…. ETC. 
The day after the race, I thought I would cleverly splice the two files using FIT FILE TOOLS (an amazing free app that I found after another Tomtom file disaster) but first I had to truncate the first file. Luckily FIT file tools has a function for this.
But to my horror, when I merged the two files and uploaded to Strava, it showed a run of 45.5 km (NOT 50). I was gutted but, at the same time, saw that Strava knew I had run the Squamish 50 because it showed a long row of faces who had done exactly the same run that day (their Strava files showed a range of distances from 55 km to my lame 45.5 km). ARRGH. So I deleted the file from Strava and tried the truncation again. Same thing. Strava has the run time approx. right but the distance wrong. I studied the map and then I realized that the problem was the second watch. It had me flying with my special jet pack across a raging river and over a small mountain to re-join the race in the early stages of the Climb.
Note to self: make sure that your watch has a GPS signal when you put it on. 

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Final technical note. Gary included the age ranges in the results this year - which is so great for older runners. I finished 2nd out of 8 females in the 50-59 category. Now if i could just move up a little….maybe the fire in the belly was there all along.


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