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.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Adventures of a Mud Puppy

My quest to find running events that allow me to be as slow as I like continued this weekend with the Seaton Soaker Trail Race. This race is part of the Ontario Ultra and Trail Race Series (Outrace), and offers 15, 25, and 50k distances. I chose the middle option. The shortest wouldn’t have satisfied me, and the longest would have killed me.
Photo: Seaton Soaker Trail Race
The course follows the Seaton Hiking Trail, a forested, mostly single-lane path with moderate hills that winds along Duffins Creek in Ajax, just east of Toronto. About 3 km from the end there is a shallow river crossing, which is useful to wash the excess mud off the lower body. This can be a revitalizing sensation, as the water temperature in spring is anything but tepid.

I ran this race last year on a warm sunny day in May. Unless you live in Honolulu though, not all days in May are warm and sunny, and this past Saturday was one of the other kind. It was on the cool side, and I would describe the precipitation as an ambitious Scotch mist. The rain wasn’t really an issue weather-wise, but the trails, already quite muddy from spring runoff, were especially challenging.
Meaning slippery. This year's event wasn’t so much a soaker as it was a slider. A lot of the time I was either schmucking my way through ankle-deep mud or clinging to a tree branch to keep from slipping down a hill. I would have felt more stable dancing the Nutcracker on a hockey rink.
The precariousness of balance reminded me of my friend Pam’s description of a gravel-road bike race called Barry-Roubaix.
As always, I appreciated the volunteers because among other things they smiled dutifully at my lame attempts at humour as I passed, even though they must have been soaked and chilled to the bone. I continue to believe that it is easier to be a runner than a volunteer, but more noble to be the latter.
Yes, that's me under there.
I managed to stay more or less upright for the first half of the day, but heading back into the forest after the turnaround at 12.5k, I finally lost it and went down. My landing was soft and sloppy, like one of those slow motion films of a duck landing on the water, legs outstretched in front, wings flapping away. Naturally, the first thing I did was to look around and see if anyone else had seen me. But this is one of the advantages of being at the back of the pack: there are few people nearby.
By the end of the morning I was covered in mud and getting weary of losing my footing every two minutes, but I still finished smiling, with lots of energy to spare. I sprinted up the final hill to the finish line, ready (if not even remotely able) to do it all again.
It is a lovely thing to be running through a forest. The surface – when it is not as slick as quicksilver – is soft and yielding to the feet. The air is still and quiet. I believe that the nearness of the trees and other features makes it seem as if I am moving a lot faster than I am. Frankly, it is more fun than counting lampposts or stoplights along a city street.
Of course, I rarely see much of the scenery moving past me; I am too busy trying not to trip over anything. My eyes are always fixed on the path underneath my feet.  A trail race course could traverse a nudist resort and I probably wouldn’t notice.
Running trails is a full-body workout, every step requires a different landing, and my arms seem to be constantly flapping about in different directions to help me keep my balance. No elliptical trainer bends and twists my aging body so effectively.
I marvel at the people who can really move over a course like this (and there were many of them). Although I don’t aspire to any finish results above the bottom page, I would like to become a bit more efficient and confident in my trail running (and maybe fall a bit less).

Saturday, April 9, 2016

OMG Spring!

Around the Bay Road Race, Hamilton Ontario. April 3, 2016
The attraction and the caution of an outdoor athletic event is that is outdoors. The guys who created the Around the Bay 30k Race back in 1894 originally held it on Boxing Day; later it was moved to the end of March. So all who participate in it know to expect anything in the way of weather. Last year I remember being frozen to the brisket from a bitter wind as I ran the final 3 kilometres. This year promised something similar, with temperatures not expected to get above freezing all day.
As I stood waiting to start the race, swathed in tights, warmup pants, layers of shirt, windproof jacket, gloves, and toque, I recalled that the last time I had run this distance was in Death Valley. That day the temperature reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I drank mega-quantities of liquid and put ice in my hat to keep cool and hydrated against the sun. I never stop marvelling that we possess bodies that can operate in such extremes.
Running from the start through the portlands of Hamilton down to Lake Ontario, I actually felt overdressed and overwarm as the wind was at our backs and the morning sun was in our faces. But I was philosophical.
This is nothing, I thought. I was plenty hotter than this in Death Valley.
The second 10 kilometres of the race takes runners along the shore of the lake, in the shadow of the Burlington Bay Skyway. Somehow this is never as picturesque as it sounds, and I always find this section a bit of a slog – heroic and cheery aid station volunteers notwithstanding. When the road turns away from the lake and begins to wind gently upward through the neighbourhoods of Burlington at 17k, I find a sense of relief from boredom.
It was along this section that I noticed this year a phenomenon that is certainly going to be more a part of road racing in years to come. Social media is invading the loneliness of the long distance runner.
Whereas I have always found a certain solitary peace and focus by running, the younger racers are making text messages and tweets part of the experience. I trotted past dozens of young girls shuffling along the road, eyes fixed on the tiny screens of their phones, thumbs at work like little pistons.
“OMG hills!!!! B glad u R not me LOL.”
Which way to the South Pole?
I started to stiffen up at around 25k, which I had expected. Along with the distance, the pavement was taking a toll on knees and quads after a winter of bouncy running on my treadmill. It probably didn’t help my glacial pace that I was wrapped in as much polar clothing as the Amundsen expedition.
The last stretch back into town was not as breezy as I had been expecting, and the Grim Reaper posing for selfies with the runners at 28k did not seem as grim as he had last year. The temperature indeed stayed south of freezing but the sun stayed mostly out for the duration and it was a sparkling day to be running. It was an outdoor event at the end of winter. Shorts and tank top definitely optional.
I felt that generally I ran a more evenly paced race this year. It was also more evenly slower. Even though there were a number of guys my age still out on the course as I trotted into the gloom of FirstOntario Centre and across the line, I think I could have picked it up just a bit the whole way. I was fully 25 minutes slower than I was when I  first ran the race 25 years ago. Symmetrical deterioration?
Still, it was only the first event of the year. OMG. Give urself a break.