game of patience; lesson in humility
Updated Aug 3, 2016
“People think, if I am comfortable, in the absence of pain, I’ll be happy. And that is not true at all. When I am happiest is when I am struggling and when I am under great pressure and duress. That is when we feel most alive.” Dean Karnazes
White River 50 was my first 50 miler. The journey to the race finish was actually two parallel journeys, one to achieve the confidence and mental/emotional tools to reach the finish, the other to build the fitness needed to run 80 km (in Canadian money) of mountains.
In my short ultra running career before White River, I had spent little time thinking about mental toughness. Instead I poured all my focus into training so that this middle aged body could run that far. This time, the game seemed different. I flew back from the UK via Nova Scotia in early June and ran a hard 34 km in the heat - as part of a Squamish 50/50 orientation run. That 6 hour slog pressed my nose against the glass of longer distances in hot conditions and I was afraid, my confidence diminished.
Natasha, my naturopath, suggested to me that I contact Christine Suter (a triathlon coach in Whistler) who was doing a Masters in sports psychology for athletes. I met with her and that was the beginning of my journey towards understanding (intellectually at least) the components of mental fitness. While her focus was on developing process and outcome goals as well as a race plan (all critical), I became fascinated by the concept of mental toughness.
I started to keep notes about what other people thought mental toughness comprised. Like an anthropologist, I started a digital notepad that I called steps to mental toughness. I developed a schema of elements of mental toughness — a road map in effect. But still asked the question: are we born with it; was it a chance asset like blue eyes? Or brown hair?
Northrop Frye wrote that in the 13th century, there were detailed taxonomies of angels. In 2016, I had a taxonomy of mental toughness.
The other pillar of my training was actually running :).
After the sufferfest of Smith Rock Ascent (https://www.evernote.com/l/AYTu20LqJodGcoPxmMKoagwK_2r0dRDWejg),
I had 12 weeks to White River. 3 of those weeks were race recovery and work travel, 3 were for my taper leading into the race. In effect, I had only 6 weeks to build mileage, 5 if you take away an easy recovery week. Doing two 50 km early in the 2016 season meant I had a decent base, enough to make those 5 weeks count.
In the end, those 5 big weeks of higher mileage and heaps of elevation were the highlight of my short ultra running career. Eric was able to perfectly predict the maximum load that I could manage. A couple of times I drove the rutted gravel forest service road to the base of Elfin Lakes hike and ran multiple loops from the parking lot to the the start of the snow, and back down. Another day, I power hiked the switchbacks to Garibaldi Lake and then ran to Black Tusk Junction. There were always the same long, long ascents followed by quad crushing descents. That was what the White River course demanded.
training in the forest
And I did make a race plan that I annotated onto the course profile.
The problem with the time goals that I assigned to stages of the race was that - as time went on - the goals got greedier - and would taunt me later.
I was helped immensely by Linda, Gary’s wife, who has run the course 4 times. Her advice was in my head many times as I made my way along the course. I also talked several times with my coach (Gary) who gave me reams of racing wisdom. On our last conversation, he gave me so many good tips that I later organized them into categories with headers like: pacing, fueling, chief goals, things to remember. There were two nuggets that turned out to be prescient: 1) do not expect to have a flawless day out there; and 2) you cannot predict where in the race you will experience your lowest point. He told me that he has experienced the lowest of lows at mile 20 to 25 in a 100 mile race. Both he and Christine warned me not to attach emotional significance to how I feel at any one time. Just observe it.
Like all good advice, much of this was forgotten in the moment of racing.
Reader, there is a race in this race report 😃
Race day dawned at 3 am for me. Miraculously, we had all gone to bed by 830 pm so I was actually rested and full of anticipation.
Last minute adjustments; anticipation.
We finally got moving.
The first 2 km were super slow as there were multiple downed trees on the trail and the first few really snarled up the runners. My watch reported a 22 min/mile pace at one point. 5 minutes of waiting but we slowly thinned out.
I was already towards the back of the pack but quite a few people passed me in the first couple of miles so I really was at the rear of the caravan. Gary’s voice was in my head “run at your all-day pace.” The first 4 or 5 miles are flattish through the forest but then the switchbacks started. They were steeper than I had imagined with a few sets of stairs built into the mountain. I chatted a bit and two conversations stood out. One was with bib # 68 (who was 68 years old). He had run the race multiple times and described parts of the course to me. The other was with 3 guys that I labelled band of brothers in my head. They were all three very tall, well over 6 feet with very big feet. In fact, they jovially told me that they all wore size 14 shoes. I shared my foot size with them as well… as I have pretty big feet for a girl.
I passed band of brothers around Ranger Creek (AS #2 at 12 miles). I felt decent there and enjoyed the bottled water the volunteers had carted into the AS. From there to Corral Pass at almost 17 miles, the running seemed easy though the heat was starting to be more intense; I was reminded of the searing sun at Smith Rock in the (many) exposed sections. We were in sun higher up but, as we ran along the ridges, we looked out over valleys draped in clouds. I purposefully did not run with my phone but drew this rendition of the view later (on Lynne’s Surface).
On the way back down, we passed Ranger Creek AS again. There band of brothers zipped by me. The AS had run out of the big jugs of bottled water and a lone woman was pouring water into bottles from a jug. I had a big swig of that water. It was foul, a mixture of deep earth and chlorine, and with that sip it was as if a dark veil cloaked me. Everything that had been amazing and wonderful was now dispelled by a dark, heavy feeling. There was six miles of descent to the 27 mile AS at Buck Creek where Lynne was waiting for me.
During those six miles, my race cascaded into a darker and darker place. My right hip and IT band started to hurt, drawing in my right hamstring attachment. I couldn’t drink the water so threw it over my hair to cool off. The end effect was that I was a thirsty grey cloud rolling down the forest path. On the way into Buck Creek AS, I was writing the email to all of my supporters thanking them and explaining why I had DNFed (did not finish). When I got there, I saw Lynne and Hector waiting. I was was only 20 minutes off my realistic (race plan) estimated arrival time but 50 minutes off my final pre-race hopeful arrival time. Whatever… Lynne and a bored puppy had been waiting in the forest for over 90 minutes.
The time was 1:04. I told Lynne that I would be chasing the cut-offs and not to come to the finish until well after 7 pm.
Lucky that there were other bored puppies.
Crew waiting for their people at Buck Creek AS.
Putting on my replacement pack at Buck Creek. Hector likes what he sees in the cooler.
I knew it would be hot in the afternoon sun so I had bought a bandana to hold ice around my neck. Now Lynne helped me stuff the bandana with ice, more ice went into my sports bra and I set off. Not a word about dropping because when Lynne saw me, she said “I am so proud of you.” Coming from an English person, these were words of great significance, so I plugged in my earbuds for the first time in a race and plodded off.
Immediately, I felt worse, WAY worse than I had during the descent of darkness. But now I couldn’t quit because Lynne (and my Mother and so many others) were proud of me. Instead, I told myself that I had to finish because I was NEVER EVER doing another race this long. I kept thinking that - if this were a sensible 50 km race - I would almost be done, could look forward to a gourmet dinner and long bath. Everything I had been coached about not attaching emotional significance to how I felt was forgotten.
I was far far too cold as I waddled along the next 2 miles of flat campground. We had overstuffed the ice into the bandana and my neck was frozen. I felt like a frozen snowman with concrete legs clumping along the forest floor. I was moving so slowly over the most runnable part of the course that I almost lay down - as it if it would make any difference. Instead, I started up the second long (8.5 mile) climb of the race. Here there were exposed sections and the trail was very narrow with occasional rocky outcrops impeding progress on the single track. After a mile or so, I stopped and untied the bandana and shook out most of the ice.
Usually when I listen to music, it strums my soul. Irritations turn into curiosities, my thoughts are clearer and I have better access to my emotions. Now, the tiny iPod was emitting irritating, tinny noise. But I was too stiff, too tired to even unzip the pocket that held it.
Miraculously, I passed my first person, then two more. Linda had told me that most people who are going to drop do so at Fawn Ridge (halfway up the climb to the summit at Suntop). They are so miserable that they cannot imagine continuing up the relentless climb into the face of the sun. I reached Fawn Ridge knowing that I could not be one of those people. Two volunteers mobbed me and filled my water bottles with caffeinated Tailwind. And then I saw the watermelon. I fell on it inhaling 6 or more tiny triangles of the pink fruit. Suddenly I looked up and smiled. Was watermelon the elixir of life?
I still didn’t feel great but knew i could get to Suntop. I took off running the downs and flats, power hiking the steeps. I still had some muscle cramping but the Tailwind was helping. This was my first flask with caffeine and it really got the ATP going. I passed a couple more men, clapping the second surprised guy on the back and shouting “we just have to get to Suntop.” His tired eyes focused for a moment, then lost their direction.
There is a false summit on the way to Suntop from which you descend 1000 feet before climbing 500 more feet in a 1/2 mile. As I reached the false summit, I met a tall, dark guy on a bike. He stopped and gave me a high five, telling me that he knew he would see me at the finish; he could tell. I laughed but his words filled me up and and gave me a burst of rocket fuel. I tore down the descent. When I crossed the forest service road and saw the sign 0.5 miles to Suntop, I was jubilant. I loved tearing up the final ascent. Why did racers complain in their reports about this final ascent when it was so easy?
The summit aid station was set up under a tent at the top. Please may I have the watermelon, I asked, after having seen none as I cast my eyes over the supplies. We ran out, the guy with a cowboy hat told me. We had 5 watermelons. Well clearly that was not enough, I thought to myself. Instead I filled up my last tailwind supply and took off.
I had just discovered the elixir of life and now it was taken away from me. But I didn’t care. Everything was right in the world. I was filled with joy as I ran off into the sunlight down the forest service road. As I had crossed the FSR on the last push to Suntop, I had heard another runner shouting with joy as he cruised by. Now, I was singing quite loudly as each perfectly selected song from the iPod (in shuffle mode) coursed into my ears. The National, then Bob Dylan, Northcote, Vampire Weekend, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow… every song was chosen by a God who knew every thought exactly.
Far ahead was the band of brothers joined by two women who had also passed me before Corral Pass. The band of 5 was assembled across the road clambering as if each of them had wooden legs that they shifted from side to side to move forward. I high-fived each of them and exulted we’ve got this. Then I was gone. Ahead of me was a guy around my age in a bright neon green shirt. I caught up to him and we ran together for a while but my IT bands were on fire and I let him go (only to pass him later).
After a very long time, the final aid station appeared in the woods on the right. They had watermelon ! - which I scarfed down. And a tiny bit of remaining coke. I had saved coke until the final aid station. It is my fire but also my curse so I am cautious but now I drank a couple of little dixie cups and poured half a cup into my Salomon flask (mixed it with water) and shot out. I did compliment the volunteers on their Patagonia down jackets with Cascade Crest 100 mile run embroidered onto the chest. Yes, we volunteered there, they announced proudly.
The final 6.6. miles are flat-ish but very technical, I was warned. Well, compared to Squamish, they were not technical and I realized that I could easily run them. That was when I passed the most people. Each time I came upon a lost soul wandering in those woods, I told them “you’ve got this!” If they looked halfway alive, I urged them “run with me!” but no one did. I might have passed 6 or 8 souls. The final one was a tall, very thin French guy dressed all in red (was he from Europe?). I asked him how much longer we had left - as both my Tomtom watches had died after 5.5 hours each (don’t get me started; just waiting for Christmas when Suunto has promised optical heart rate) - but he had lost his signal in the forest. Lynne told me later that he and his pal had come into Buck Creek at least an hour before me.
Very very soon I was running the final 1/4 mile along the dirt road by Buck Creek campground to the finish line. Miraculously, Lynne and Hector were there because I was a good 30 or 40 minutes faster than I had promised at 27 miles. A guy called Erik (in a photo below) clapped a water bottle full of ice cold water into my hands and I was happy, just so happy. No tears, just pure joy.
My toes were kind of blistered but Lynne said that if I included the toe picture in the blog, she wouldn’t read it. So I didn’t. Suffice it to say that she said my feet looked like I was a leper.
My amazing roadie on the day after.
Can we finally leave these woods and go for a walk? ARGGH.
We did take that poor dog for a walk the next day which would have been great except for the constant gun fire. We really started to understand these signs - that were everywhere around our VRBO cabin:
My final time was 13:07 which I did not find out until Monday when the results were posted. 8 minutes slower than my race plan time. But 55 minutes slower than my greedy secret A+ goal time.
And BTW, the race has 9200 feet of climbing. When I signed up, it was advertised as 8700’ but my watches and most of the other strava files from co-raceers showed more elevation. When they posted the results, they confirmed with this bit of text.
This was the kindest, friendliest group of runners that I have ever raced with. I felt more encouraged and included than I could imagine and I left wanting to run this race again next year, after my 100 km race 😃