Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Forest Ultra

Run for the Toad 50k – October 1, 2016

The voice in my head began speaking to me as I was about 20k into my run. “Sure,” the voice said. “You’ve gone almost a half-marathon – a decent morning’s run for anyone. But you still have 30k to go. You’re not even halfway there.”

And I had “the feeling.” I have experienced it before: once long ago at 10k of a marathon I had entered at the last minute. A sinking, missing-the-last-bus, alone, hopeless feeling in the centre of my being. A feeling that I have no business being out here, that I will never finish and may in fact be forgotten out on the course as the sun sets and everybody goes home. Luckily I ignored the feeling that day and went on to run a personal best for the marathon.

So as I passed through 20k of the Run for the Toad 50k – my first try at the distance – I was expecting that feeling, as I was waiting for the voice, and this day too I was able to disconnect both and keep running. In a few minutes I felt fine again.

Note to self: remember how you did that.

A year ago I did the 25k version of this event and loved it. A helpful and optimistic volunteer suggested I might want to try the 50k this year. With no good reason other than her casual encouragement, I set this as my goal event for the season.

The race takes place in the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area, about an hour west of Toronto,  over a very user-friendly course comprising well-groomed trails through pine forests and grassy paths across open fields. Each lap is 12.5k, so, 4 of them for the whole 50. 

It was a cool overcast day with rain threatening but never really materializing. I ran cautiously but steadily. I encountered my friend the volunteer from last year in her usual traffic-directing spot and let her know that it would be all her fault if I crashed and burned, ending up as a helpless pile of mushed muscle and snapped sinews. This is the kind of lame humour I typically offer the volunteers as I run past.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I detest it when someone labels what I do as “crazy.” I have no time for these people. With all the truly insane things going on in the world, I ask, how is it crazy to have a dream, set a goal, make plans, and then take steps to achieve your goal? Why can I not be labelled brave, or determined – or at least congenial?

As my voice had reminded me, two laps, or 25k, would have been a good morning’s workout, an honourable end to the season. But I wanted more. I have run lots of marathons – more than I can remember in fact – but this time, like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier, I wanted to see what would happen if I turned it up to eleven.

Did I have the strides to carry me into ultramarathon territory?

As I ran I couldn’t resist looking at the time, something I rarely do in a trail run. Because all trails are different, there is no point in comparing today’s race with the one you did somewhere else a month ago. But since even finishing the distance was going to be a total learning experience for me, I glanced at my watch as I made my way around each of the first three laps. I didn’t care how long I took, but I wanted the finish line not to have been dismantled before I got across it.

Got 'er done.
My body knew what it had to do; I had been training for this race since last winter and I had put in the requisite work.  When I got to the last lap – the last 12.5k – I knew I had it and I enjoyed every step. The field of runners had thinned out (as it does when you are at the back of it) and I frequently had the dark green, misty trail all to myself. As I passed the 5k marker for the fourth time (telling me I had run a total distance of 42.5 kilometres), I stopped in the middle of the path in the silent forest, raised my arms heavenward, and let the voice in my head tell me, “You’re an ultramarathoner.”

Amazingly, I managed not to trip or stumble; this is probably due more to luck than skill – not to mention my Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes – but staying upright is always a great morale booster. As usual, I felt stronger as I approached the finish line than I had all day. When I finished, I had been running for just under seven hours. 

This was the finale of my season, which began with Around the Bay back in April. I have grandiose plans to build on what I've learned this year. The next task is to teach myself to pace better, to become more confident running up and down hills, and to remind the voice in my head that each step is one more closer to my goal, and that I am indeed getting there. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Footsteps in an Old Forest

Haliburton Forest Trail Run, September 10, 2016  
In his book, A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning, Don Allison describes the terrain of the Haliburton Forest Trail Run as “runner friendly.” And in comparison with other events around the world, I suppose it is. There are no mountain passes or glaciers to traverse, no sand dunes or swamps to be swallowed by. Little danger from mountain lions or poisonous reptiles. But for me, a runner with minimal experience running in extreme conditions, I love the challenge and beauty you can find in this event.
The Haliburton Forest is a private nature reserve under a canopy of ancient hardwood trees about 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto. The race is 23 now years old, a testament to its popularity as well as to the longevity of its director, the venerable and unsinkable Helen Malmberg.  There are several distances offered on the menu: 100 miles, 50 miles, 50k, 26k; even a 12k for those who want only an appetizer.
I was running the 26k, what I called once again the Fun Run.
As befits a forest, there are lots of rocks and roots, steep climbs, and luge-like descents. There are bogs, whereat you have to decide whether the wet logs laid across them will provide enough support and traction so that you won’t be catapulted into the mud (I was just once; it was a nice soft landing).
Last year I participated in this race and suffered a lot. I hadn’t been expecting the way the dodgy footing and pre-Cambrian topography would slow down my pace. I hadn’t anticipated the amount of hopping, skipping and jumping (and not running) that is involved in negotiating a forest trail. It was the slowest 26k I had ever run and I felt chastened and somewhat discouraged. In my blog post after that race, I made a list of things I thought I had done wrong: inappropriate shoes and clothing, inadequate nutrition and hydration, unrealistic expectations.
This is the shoe. I had two of them.
This year I brought all the gear I felt I needed and left behind the expectations. And I had a great time. The weather forecast was iffy, calling for rain around noon. But the morning was great for a run: lightly overcast and about 18C.
Some of the route appears to follow trails that are such by virtue only of the fact that several people have passed over them at one point in history. At times the orange flags marking the course seem to have been arbitrarily set in the middle of the forest primeval. But there is indeed a path and it did take me to the cheery aid station volunteers at the 13k turnaround and home again. I went off the rails only once and it was my fault – I thought I was at a different crossroads than I really was. As soon as I realized there were no trail markers in sight, I reversed and got back on course.
The good news was that although I still wrestled with my own inner timing and pace expectations, everything else worked beautifully. My Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes were perfect for the paths and often-slippery rocks, and I made good use of my Nathan hydration system, stocked with lots of gels. I was well hydrated and nourished the whole way.
Attractive finisher's medal, no?
The other good news is that the training I have been doing this summer has left my body in relatively decent shape for a trail race. There are few things as encouraging as asking your legs for more power after you’ve been running for three straight hours – to skip like an Irish step dancer over tree roots and rocks, to scramble up a steep rock, to charge down the road to the finish – and to feel them respond. I managed to shave some minutes off my time from last year, but more importantly, I ran to the finish feeling fresh and inspired. Last year I walked the last 2 kilometres.
In the last 45 minutes of my run it started to rain, although I was protected by the thick green canopy of the forest till the home stretch, which is along a gravel road. In any case it was a mild day, and when I came out into the open the rain felt refreshing and welcome. I recognize that this might not have been the case if I had had many more hours to run.
This event was a warm-up for my goal race this year: the Run for the Toad 50k, which is in three weeks. I still don’t know if I can run 50k, so the adventure – as it always does and always should – lies in the unknown.
As I write this on Sunday morning, runners not far from here are finishing the longest distance of the Haliburton Forest Trail Run – 100 miles. They have been running since 6 a.m. yesterday. Overnight it seems as if we have passed over the divide between summer and fall. Although the sun is shining brightly, the temperature has dropped about a dozen degrees since yesterday. Part of trail running is dressing for the conditions, and I hope they all did. They are a unique breed of human, and as always, it is a special treat to be running in their footsteps.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Earth Runner's High

Dirty Girls Trail Race, Mansfield Ontario

I did the Dirty Girls, and I have the T-shirt to prove it. This tough trail race with the politically risky name (try googling it) has been part of the Ontario Ultra series for a decade now, although there was a suggestion from the announcer at the starting line that it may be coming to an end.

Dirty Girls logo. The race is tough, really.
I hope not, because a lot of loving care has gone into this race, and it shows. The event has a visual theme of cute, clever artwork that belies its gritty character. One touch I appreciated is that each section of the course is given a name – Chatty Girl Escape No.1, Earth Girl’s High, Dirty Boy’s Confusion – and this actually goes a long way to help with orientation. Hint: When you reach Beer Gut Boy’s a-Singin’! you are near the end.
The race is run around an 8k loop, which means that you get to enjoy the same hills and stumble over the same roots multiple times – familiarity can breed contempt or confidence. For all of the events except one, the distance is variable: you are measured on how many laps you can do in a given time – 6, 12, or 24 hours. My event was the only one with a fixed distance: 32k, or a modest 4 circuits. I thought of this one as the Fun Run.
Ultrarunning magazine describes the course as “hilly … with substantial … roots.” (The editor in me thinks they mean that there are a lot of roots, not that the roots are huge.) But what trail worth running does not have hills and roots? Much of the Dirty Girls takes place on forest paths, not groomed trails, so yes, hillier and rootier than some.
Hills? Runners follow a trail that goes up and down the Niagara Escarpment. To give you an idea of scale, this is the same geological rift that forms Niagara Falls. So … not inconsiderable in terms of elevation gain and loss.
Most of the climbs are comparatively gentle, though, and a serious competitor (not me) could run up them easily. Toward the end of the loop there is a long uphill called Dirty Runners’ Pain that might slow down even the most motivated.
Some of the paths double back on themselves, so that you can look through the trees and catch a glimpse of runners going in the opposite direction, to the point where you might wonder if you are going the wrong way (see Dirty Boy’s Confusion, above).
Enough said.
My third and fourth laps were much slower than my first two, telling me that I need to do more hill work before my next outing. Somehow I have still not gotten the message that a clamber up a 30-degree, uneven, scrabbly slope takes more out of you than an easy jog along the bike path behind my house. I’ve felt less tired after some marathons I’ve done than I did after this event.
As always, the volunteers were cheerful and supportive. There is one aid station at the far end of the loop, but to augment this I strongly recommend taking water, electrolytes, and nutrition along. If nothing else, having your own stuff to chow down on when you are alone in the woods can be a good morale booster.
I eventually crossed the finish line far later than I had intended, as usual just up few notches from the bottom of the field. The last lap was really very enjoyable (possibly because it was the last). In terms of toughness, variety, and pure fun, this was one of my favourite races in my novice trail career so far.It has been very hot and sunny in our area for the past few weeks. However most of the Dirty Girls course is sheltered by trees, and there was a good breeze at the top of the escarpment, so my run was warm but survivable.

When I crossed the timing mat for the last time, the worst heat of the day was still ahead, and it seemed strongest in the open field that makes up the start/finish area. As I stood recovering, feeling like a cupcake in an Easy Bake Oven, my heart went out to the runners who were gamely trotting back up the hill to continue on, some of them for nearly 20 more hours. I remain in awe of these athletes and I am always proud to have a chance to run among them.