20 November 2019

Gimme a break, gimme a break ...

It's been some kind of a year!

2019 has been my self-appointed 'year of ultra', with a focus on taking on almost exclusively (trail) ultra races and culminating in my first attempt at a 100-miler.  After a fairly strenuous endeavour such as that it only makes sense to take a significant break to allow the body to recover.

At least that's what anyone in their right mind would do.  But me?  Oh no.

I went ahead and served as one of the official pacers for The County Marathon (for the sixth year in a row), and then two weeks after that accepted an invitation from my good friend Holly to serve as her unofficial pacer at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.  So within the span of about six weeks I'd put in about 245 kilometres of racing (on top of the regular workouts that led up to both of the marathons).  I wouldn't recommend that to anyone ... but I'm probably one of my own worst students.

After working with Holly to help her attain a new personal best (and another Boston Qualifying time) I knew that I wanted to take some time off.  Somewhat arbitrarily I decided that it would be three weeks of complete inactivity, at least from a running/exercise perspective.  And boy did my body need it.

Although I went just about stir crazy after a measly three days of not running, my knee, both feet and shoulders (oddly enough) were providing ample feedback to let me know that I should have taken time off sooner.  And I don't mean a few weeks sooner, but probably something more like a few years sooner - because this three-week hiatus would turn out to be the longest time without lacing up the running shoes in about nine years.

108 months.  Or 469 weeks.  Or 14265 days.

Oh I'd taken a week off here and there.  Just nothing that really resembled a true off-season ... you know, the kind that even professional distance runners know that they are wise to take.  If I'm going to be honest I think that the rationale behind this relentless drive to run was probably threefold in origin:
  1. An addiction to running
  2. Negative body self-image
  3. FOMO (fear of missing out) ... or maybe better yet FONBPAHCE (fear of not being perceived as hard-core enough).
As you can tell none of the three reasons above is a healthy motive to keep pressing forward.  You might also have guessed that stopping my running routine actually wound up exacerbating all of these issues - to the extent that I basically had to go radio-silent on running-related social media channels to avoid feeling worse about myself while witnessing everyone else's outings and achievements.  I also tucked the scale away underneath the bathroom counter so that it was basically inaccessible, as well as 'resigning' myself to eating guilt-free to try to undo some of the negative thoughts I had about weight loss equaling athletic prowess**.

My friend David got it right ... I totally felt like 'fat Thor'

The honest truth is that it was really difficult to take that break - more difficult than if I had continued to run regularly, although that would have almost certainly have put me on the shelf with an injury of some variety.  I had difficulty sleeping (because I wasn't nearly as tired each night), I couldn't sleep in (as my body had been long-accustomed to waking routinely just before 5 a.m.) and I felt like someone had jumbled my schedule each day because it didn't start off with a run.  Still, rest is a necessary act of discipline and I had to work at taking some rest. 

Moment by moment, day by day I stayed the course.  I made it to three weeks of inactivity.

So now what?

I decided that next year I want to take another stab at the marathon, but I'm going to finally give a go at (low) heart-rate based training.  I'd come across Floris Gierman on YouTube several years back and was astounded that he could run a sub-3 marathon while simultaneously vlogging it - and he attributed a great deal of his success to following the philosophy/methodology of Phil Maffetone and focusing in on aerobic system development.  Floris now leads up the Extramilest network (including coaching and a podcast) and has become an influencer in the online running community.  As a tinkerer I saw low heart-rate training as a way to ease back into an exercise schedule, and quite possibly a path towards finally getting my own sub-3 marathon PB.

I haven't yet picked a spring goal race, but I do have a trip to Burlington for the Chilly-Half Marathon booked again for 2020 - so that may be my first real test to see if I'm actually getting anywhere or just stuck on the dreadmill of self-sabotage.

However it goes, I'm happy to be back at it again!

- - - - - -  

** If you have also struggled with the whole 'weigh less, run faster' mentality then I might recommend at least giving a quick watch of this video from former NCAA D1 cross-country runner Emma Abrahamson ...


08 October 2019

Belt-buckle breakdown: Run Woodstock Hallucination 100 mile race report

It was such an epic journey that it's hard to know where to begin.

So in an effort to make this more readable I'm going to break this report down not in terms of chronological sequence but rather by component parts - and hopefully those of you who are only interested in certain facets can scroll through to what catches your fancy.

Here are the areas that I'm going to focus in on:
  • The course (including conditions)
  • The equipment
  • The (other) people
  • The advice
  • The runner
  • The mistakes.
The course
While I'd told many people that I was going to go to Hell (Michigan) - with the hopes of also fulfilling the "and back" part - the actual address to punch into the GPS navigator had me heading to Pinckney, a little northeast of Hell and about halfway between Ann Arbor and Lansing.  I'd made the trek the night before the race to stay with my friends Chuck & Jan in Emeryville (just outside of Windsor) so that the day-of drive to Hell Creek Ranch Campground would only require 90 min. of travel time.

As the name would indicate the property on which we'd be starting the race was a campground - and a funky-vibed one at that.

Can you dig the speed limit, sucka .....?!?!

The 100-mile race distance consists of six 16.6 mile loops (or 26.7 km), and as I was to find out upwards of 1/3 of the loop was either on crushed limestone rail-trail or rural sideroad.  Aid stations were situated approximately 4 miles apart, so we had the initial start/finish aid station (with drop bag tent), the "Grace" station (at 4 mi. and then crossed again at 12 mi.) and "Richie's Haven".  At each station there were plenty of friendly faces, loads of snacks/liquids/foods and rockin' tunage.

With respect to the trail conditions they were very well groomed and not particularly technical - for all intents and purposes the entire course was runnable (except perhaps for the steepest and longest incline at 13 mi.) and there was only really one notable patch of mud that required circumnavigation.  Aside from that the biggest hazard (and some were big) were the piles of horse droppings that greeted you from time to time ... easily dodged in the daylight, but almost indistinguishable from the regular trail footing at night (yuck).

There were boardwalks over ponds and creeks.

There was marshland with shoulder-height grass and weeds (which I was almost certain would send me home with at least a few ticks, but thankfully none were found).

There were extended sections of downhill bombing with 'death to the right' (aka a steep drop-off, but I like Rhonda-Marie's descriptor better).

There were next-to-no bugs (mosquitoes, deerflies or otherwise).  I think that during the entire race I might have swatted at bugs perhaps four times, and was never bitten.

And as for the conditions on the day (and night), you could hardly have asked for better.  There was a steady rain that lasted for maybe 30-40 min. at around 1pm on Friday afternoon (the race start time was at 4pm), but after that there was no precipitation that affected the run.  This meant that everything underfoot was relatively secure, and even when the nighttime temperatures cooled down to about 14°C (vs. the daytime high of about 24°C) there was nothing to make it miserable or even unenjoyable ... it was all-around pleasant.  I didn't need to don any of the extra layers (e.g. long-sleeved tech top, rain jacket or running pants) that I'd brought with me so that minimized the amount of extra time that might otherwise have been required for changing into different outfits.

Now I have to say something else about the vibe of the campground - when we looped back through the start/finish area it was hard not to feel encouraged.  With so many people camping out as part of the race weekend (families, crew members, racers tackling different distances) there was never a point - even in the dead of night) when there wasn't a cascade of applause lifting your spirits.  As well during the daylight hours there was music playing (live bands on the soundstage were a feature part of the camping experience), and just tons of colour to stimulate your visual senses.  It was - dare I say it? - groovy.
 [ Photo courtesy of Run Woodstock on Facebook ]

The equipment
This is just a basic rundown of what I used during the race:
  • Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Forever Energy (although these are road shoes they did serve me well at the Sunburn Solstice Trail Run and the Limberlost Challenge - plus I was encouraged when there were a few other 100-mile runners that I spoke with pre-race who had competed in this event in previous years and chose to lace up road shoes as well)
  • Apparel:  Reebok "Race Crew" ACTIVCHILL tee; Reebok 5-in. split shorts; Falke RU Energizing compression socks; Sugoi arm sleeves; Buff original headwear (as neck-warmer/sweat absorber)
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 Race Vest (with Platypus Big Zip LP 1.5L bladder, courtesy of superathlete extraordinaire Christina Blackley
  • Headlamps:  Princeton Tec Remix (125 lumens) and Black Diamond Astro (150 lumens)
  • Watch:  Epson RunSense SF-810 (which unfortunately ran out of battery partway through the fourth loop)
  • Nutrition:  REKARB energy syrups; GU gels; PC Organics banana & raspberry strained baby food pouches (this stuff was like magic!); assorted Timbits; Ironman Ruth's homemade oat-cakes and rhubarb/banana/chocolate muffins; Salt Stick salt tablets; Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers
And then there was the extra stuff that I packed but never ended up actually using/needing (but was still glad that I had with me):
  • Skechers GOTrail Ultra 3 (extra shoes)
  • Dollar-store variety 'magic gloves'
  • Reebok running performance cap
  • Reebok run essentials s/s and l/s shirt
  • Team Running Free fleece hoodie (at the advice of my friend Julius)
  • Jar of pickles
  • Trader Joe almonds  
A pretty decent haul in the race kit goody bag!
The people
This list go almost literally go on and on - prior to the race I deliberately sought the advice of a number of experienced ultrarunning friends, including Steph Hurtado, Keith Lascelles, Chad Dickinson, Steven Parke and Jim Willett.  I'd benefited so much as well from the comraderie and encouragment of my tribe the Barrie RunNinjas, and would be remiss if I didn't thank the Barrie Trail Running Club too.

However along the way in the race there were definitely a few folks who played a big part in the overall experience:
  • Marilyn - we first met in the line for race kit pick-up.  I immediately took notice of her slight and diminutive frame which I interpreted to be 'fit and fast' - and sure enough as she engaged me in pleasant small talk while we waited together in line she told me that while being a first-timer at the Hallucination 100 like me (she was from the greater Boston area) she was "6 for 10" in 100 milers.  I would later pick her brain while setting up gear in the start/finish area drop-bag tent, covering everything from pacing to how much extra gear to bring on any given loop.  We started pretty much together but after about 3k I (foolishly?) sped ahead and didn't see her again until my 5th lap when I was really struggling with GI issues and she passed me looking strong.  I would only see her again after regaining some strength and obliviously saying "trying to pass on your left" at about mile 99.  My finishing time was only about two minutes ahead of hers, and when she crossed I wanted to be there to greet her and offer up my thanks.  She embraced me with the hugest bear-hug possible and tearfully congratulated me on my big accomplishment. 
  • David - we had our stuff situated beside each other in the start/finish drop-bag tent, and got to chatting while waiting for the pre-race meeting.  David was a local runner and had finished a few hundos, including the Hallucination 100 several years back.  I immediately noticed his stars-and-stripes running shorts, and we connected not just on the fashion front but also as he is a dad to a few young-adult children.  I loved going through David's fueling plan with him, which included some niacin tablets which I learned can warm you up when feeling cold during a long race.  While a seasoned ultra-athlete, I saw David hurting during his third lap and he told me that his hamstrings were simply not having it that day ... and as such he had to drop out after about 45 miles.
  • Doug - I connected with Doug as we started from the campground on the second loop.  From the campground the course narrows to single track, so I got to chatting with him and another younger runner (Jacob) and we ran together for the next 4km or so.  We were exchanging stories about how we got into running, and I found out that among other things Doug's nickname was "Goat" (apparently short for "Rancid Goat"!) and that he's been quite involved in charity races and helping execute races of various distances which are promoted as friendly to first-time racers.  A super-friendly guy, Doug and I would end up playing 'leap-frog' for pretty much the remainder of the race - he and his pacer (unlike me, Doug had a full crew there to help him with logistics, refueling and pacing) would often pass me out on the course but we'd see each other at the aid stations because Doug (who was nursing a bad hamstring issue himself) would spend more time resting while I tried to grab some food and keep moving.  Doug was 110% pure grit, and it was so inspiring and uplifting to my spirits to keep crossing paths with him all throughout the day and night and day again. 
  • The border patrol/customs agents - obviously an unusual addition to a race report, but I found that both entering the USA and re-entering Canada the border guards were absolutely fascinated by the fact that my reason for travel was to run an ultramarathon, much less a 100 miler.  As soon as they caught wind that that was the focus of my trip they completely abandoned the normal array of questions (e.g. where do you live, are you bringing anything into the country, how long is your stay, etc.) and just peppered me with questions about the logistics of the race, what kind of training was required and what kind of plan I had in place to stay awake and moving.  I almost felt like I had to cut them off just so that I wouldn't tick off the other cars in line behind me.  
The advice
When I peruse through other people's race reports I admin to sometimes not reading through the entire narrative - not because its uninteresting, but because my sole purpose is try to walk away with a few nuggets of information that I can implement into my next comparable venture.  As such I thought that I would highlight some of the key pieces of advice that I received which I think are worth noting for anyone attempting an ultramarathon, and perhaps in particular a hundred-miler:
  • Walk before you have to - I know that I voiced this myself after reflecting on the Sunburn Solstice Trail Run, but I've also read/heard this from multiple fronts.  At some point in an ultra you are most likely to have to walk - so incorporate them strategically instead of feeling that its a last resort.  When you choose an interval to walk you are almost certainly even going to carry that on at a more vigourous pace than if you are reduced to having to walk.
  • Stay in the moment - a video that I'd recently come across was a TED talk by a gent named Ned Phillips and out of all the stories that he told the one little bit that stuck with me was about how important it is when running to just think about running.  Sounds simple, and it is - but profoundly so:  https://youtu.be/_tc4K5Zujqw?t=629
  • Be careful of over-preparing - another video that proved immensely helpful was an interview with Anton Krupicka (won the Leadville 100 twice, and placed second in 2010 at Western States).  Besides reiterating the 'stay in the moment' approach Anton also shared some reassuring words about how ignorance leading into one's first 100-miler can be underrated.  It's not an excuse for negligence or laziness in making sure that you're well-trained and reasonably aware of what's in front of you, but that you can overthink your preparation.  I even read that you can over-pack, putting energy and $$ into bring far more stuff than you need, especially to races (like the Hallucination 100) that has fantastic aid stations that are not too too far apart.  Even the very small cooler of food/snacks that I brought was barely scratched because of how well stocked the race aid stations were.
  • Brushing your teeth can feel as good as a shower - this was a tidbit advised by both my friends Steven and Steph.  I packed a toothbrush and toothpaste and pulled them out after lap #4 (approx. 9:00 am) in the hopes that having a fresh mouth would revitalize me.  It was no instant wake-up call, but I can say that I did have something to look forward to as I was plodding toward sunrise, and it was great to feel like my breath wouldn't melt metal.
The runner
What can I say?  I spent an entire season only racing ultras in the hopes of being fit enough to complete the Hallucination 100 in the allotted time (30-hour cut-off, which would give me a Western States qualifying ballot).  In addition to plenty of time logged on my feet I also took Steven's advice of trying to put in a few run streaks to try to help bolster my mental preparation - for me this meant running every day for the month of January (no mean feat during the polar vortex-type winters here in Barrie, ON) and the month of March.   I figured that if I could get out there when I was not only tired but the conditions were certainly prohibitive that perhaps I would be ready for pushing through those proverbial 'walls' when I felt like running was the last thing that I wanted to do.

And the walls, they came.

I think that there were at least five distinct occasions during my 100-mile run when I effectively thought that I was done.  The earliest occurrence was at around kilometre 32 when I was walking up a hill and couldn't even maintain a straight path.  Now I confess to have been battling light-headedness and vertigo for the five days leading up the Hallucination 100 - I think that it may have been a result of a sinus infection - and wasn't even sure that I would make it to the start line.  However I felt like I could give it a go with my only real fear being that if/when I fell on the trails that the world might start spinning out-of-control.  Thankfully that didn't end up happening (maybe in part due to the fact that when I did fall I went full-out Superman diving instead of my normal tuck-and-roll strategy).

Then there was the GI (gastro-intestinal) stuff.

As much as I have tried to learn from the assortment of ultras that I managed to complete this year, I still do not have a handle on how to fuel in a way that doesn't upset my stomach.  By the time that I was going around on loop #5 (about 85km in) I was finding it very difficult to get in the calories that I needed without having my stomach reject it altogether.  I was grateful that aid station #1/#3 (we passed by it twice) had plain cheese pizza, but the only way that I could get it down was to walk slowly and try to eat it in the smallest of nibble-sizes.  I couldn't handle anything sweet - so no more gels, no candy, not enough peanut butter & jam sandwiches.  And even chicken noodle soup threatened to make a reappearance after swallowing it if I tried to consume it in modestly-full spoonfuls.  This made for a recipe of near-disaster as I went into a serious calorie-deficit position and pretty much walked the entire fifth lap.

About 27km of watching people look good while I felt like a zombie. 

27km of hearing "on your left".

27km of thinking about how I was going to draft my 'DNF' race report.

Oh, and did I mention that my watch had run out of battery life during the fourth loop?

I'd told myself that I was pretty much spent, and that there would be no way that after the fifth lap that I would have enough time (at my current pace) to make the cut-off.  That decision to bail was also made psychologically a bit easier given that the organizers give anyone who completes more than 100km the option to back down and receive a time for the "Happening 100k" (instead of a DNF in the 100 miler) as well as a medal for that distance.

Coming back into the campground at the end of lap 5 I sat down (and I really hadn't sat down all race long - I tried to keep moving at all times, even if it was just at a slow walk) convinced that I was done.  The senior volunteer who was tracking bib numbers as we came through the aid station asked me how long before I'd set out for the last go-round, and I told her I was pretty much finished.  Her response was "but you still have lots of time" ... and not knowing what time it was exactly I still had no designs on pressing on.  I was pretty sure that it was past 4pm, and that would leave me a total of six hours or less to complete another 27km of feeling downright nasty.

"It's 3:31 pm", she said.

Moment of truth time.

With more than six hours left I somehow convinced myself that I could give it a go and pull out at one of the aid stations if/when things got extraordinarily ugly.  So I (figuratively) girded my loins, and went to ring the bell that hung in the aid tent - it was explained to us during the pre-race meeting that on the final lap runners had to ring the bell to signal that they were only going round once more (much like you would hear at a track-and-field event).  Once I gave it a good ring I planted my right foot forward to try to muster something of a jog ...

And guess what?

I actually found myself running.  Faster than I had for the previous 5-7 hours.  Not sure if it was the bell that mentally woke me up, or the prospect of potentially being able to earn my first belt buckle - whatever it was, I managed to make my last loop my third fastest of the race:
  • Loop 1 - 3:10
  • Loop 2 - 3:53
  • Loop 3 - 5:01
  • Loop 4 - 5:10
  • Loop 5 - 6:17
  • Loop 6 - 4:23
As a last note on this section I'll say that even though I did not have any crew or pacers with me (and honestly I think that this event was well set-up to not need any additional help) I did use the setting sun as my 'unofficial' pacer for the final loop.  The last thing that I wanted to have to do is to pull out my headlamp again to run in the dark - so my cadence picked up with the lengthening shadows.  There's nothing quite like desperation to keep your feet moving.

The final tale of the tape

The mistakes
I'm sure that there are many more errors in judgment, preparation and execution but I think that I'll just note two of them here:
  1. Driving home right after finishing - yep, I waddled my way from the finishing to collect my drop-bag stuff and headed straight out of the campground to my car.  I then launched headlong into the 5+ hour drive home, which included a late-night stop at McDonald's to grab a caffeine jolt and numerous overpass bridges that seemingly became Transformers before my eyes.  Apparently the hallucinations for me were kept on hold until after the run.  Still, I managed to get home safely somehow, grabbed a shower and hit the hay in my own bed.  This all despite numerous recommendations not to extend my streak of 34 awake hours to 39 (including my wife telling me to just nab a hotel room).  Don't try this at home, kids.
  2. Giving myself very little recovery time - I took two days off of running after getting home.  I thought that my legs actually felt pretty good, and since I had already committed to pacing the County Marathon again this year I didn't want to dive into off-season mode quite yet.  And while I didn't launch into a hardcore training week, I did help my friend Jeremy move the following weekend and promptly threw my back out completely.  I was shelved for about three days with radiating lower-back pain, and after that subsided my neck seized up for another three days.  I felt like I was physically falling to pieces, but I suspect that that was just my body telling me "what - you didn't think that I just did the most strenuous workout in 49 years of life?".

So there it is - the Hallucination 100 as I best remember it.  Where we go from here is to submit my single ballot into the 2020 Western States Endurance Run lottery - and even if I don't see my name drawn (which is almost guaranteed) I may think about hitting up another belt buckle adventure.  It was an excellent time all in all, and I still believe that I could finish one in under 24 hours.

But first, some donuts and a decent off-season ...! :)

Sign me up for another rodeo, cowboy!


30 August 2019

Are trail running shoes overrated?

I can hardly believe that I'm actually writing this entry.

For as far as I can remember (since I started running) I've been a believer in specialization.  That means that if you want to run fast, you need to run fast (as well as running slow in between workouts).  To prep for hot weather racing, you should ... run in hot weather.  For trail races, practice getting out on trail conditions of all kinds.

And different types of running should call for different types of shoes.  Racing flats.  Track spikes.  Cushioned road shoes (for easy/recovery days).  Trail shoes for trails.

But hold the phone ...

Out of (perhaps an overinflated) sense of obligation**, I decided to try out wearing the Reebok Forever Floatride Energy (FFE) as my footwear of choice for both the Sunburn Solstice Trail Run and the Limberlost Challenge.  The FFE shoes are designed for the road, whereas both of the aforementioned races were conducted on trail surfaces.  Now I know that anyone who has tackled either of those events would recognize that they are not particularly technical as far as trail conditions (on a scale of 1-10 the Sunburn Solstice might have been a 4 or 5, while the Limberlost Challenge might nab a 6 or 7 at most) so perhaps you could argue that they don't particularly demand the advantages that trail shoes offer.  All the same they are marketed as trail races, and as such would lead your average runner (such as myself) to believe that trail shoes are either mandatory or at least recommended for the course surface.

How did I manage in attempting to take on these races in road shoes?

Long story short, surprisingly well.

I didn't feel like I suffered much in the way of traction or stability, which I was surprised about given their fairly flat outsole profile.  I may not have propelled my way up inclines effortlessly, but then again anything of a serious grade had me power-hiking (hands-on-knees style) anyway.  Where things got technical-ish I was maneuvering slowly and deliberately anyhow, and through sections of significant mud I'm not sure that the traction currently offered to me by the trail shoes in my inventory (the Skechers GO Trail, GO Ultra Trail 3 and Merrell Mix Master 2) would have made a discernible difference.

The Reebok Forever Floatride Energy - only ever-so-slightly nubby outsoles

Basically since I wasn't doing any mountain climbing or fell running (and that's not running while falling - that I've got covered) these road shoes were more than capable of getting me between points A and B, and multiple times over as required.  I found my footing to be acceptably stable, and the FFEs provided plenty of comfort for hour upon hour of trail tromping.

With this in mind I plan on using the FFE as my primary treads when I take on the Hallucination 100 miler next Friday just outside of Hell, Michigan (for real folks).  I'll bring some trail shoes as backups since I've been advised that having extra shoes on hand is always wise for a hundie, but armed with the knowledge that I was able to get through 100km in the FFE blister-free (and retaining the original colour in all my toenails I might add) who knows whether or not I'll need to perform a mid-race swap.

Does that mean that I'm giving up on trail shoes?


I think that trail shoes will still be handy just for the fact that they'll give my road shoes a rest and they may stimulate my feet and legs in a slightly different manner.  That and my trail shoes are my go-tos for winter running traction.

Anyone else have further thoughts or comments on the necessity of trail shoes?  Hit me up in the comments - I'm always open to learning as I bumble and fumble my way stride after stride!

** I received a complimentary pair of the Forever Floatride Energy directly from Reebok Canada, and am under no obligation (contractual or otherwise) to endorse their products on this blog.  All opinions expressed - however poorly - are voluntary and entirely my own.

03 July 2019

The Sunburn Solstice Trail Run (Full) - race report

Yes sir, the definition of insanity is indeed doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result ...

That was the kind of feeling that I had during this race.

I'd signed up to compete in the inaugural edition of Happy Trails Racing's "The Sunburn Solstice Trail Run" in the hopes of attacking it as a training run in advance of the planned 100-mile attempt later on this September.  I thought that both in terms of time on my feet (as the event was scheduled to cover the entire period between sunrise and sunset - 15h23m - on June 22, the longest day of the summer) and projected distance this would be a solid test of my physical fitness and mental fortitude.

Admittedly I did come into the race with my stores still somewhat depleted - not to make excuses or diminish my effort (or anyone else's for that matter), but I know that having participated in a 50 miler, a 300+ km relay and a 10km push-chair event in the month leading up to it that I'd done a delicate, or perhaps not-so-delicate dance with the overtraining monster.  Still I'd scaled back significantly in the mid-June weeks to try to rest up and not be a ticking time-bomb standing at the start line.

One of the other very cool things about this event was that the Happy Trails Racing (HTR) team structured this race as a fundraiser for Camp Marydale's "One-to-One" program.  As we were running on the trails of Camp Marydale it seemed fitting to give back to them, and the "One-to-One" program is intended to help provide resources so that kids with exceptional needs could be given the opportunity to experience summer camp just like their peers.  I decided to put some energy into this as a way of leveraging my running for the benefit of others, but also (just being honest here) because HTR offered to refund entry fees for anyone bringing in more than $200 in donations.

Gotta say that I was blown away by the support of friends both newer and older, far and near who responded to my call for support - they all helped me to surpass my individual goal of $500, and the event's overall goal of raising $4000.


1.  The Happy Trails Racing team - this was my first time participating in an HTR event although I'd known of Jeff (Rowthorn) and Heather (Borsellino) and always heard amazing things about them.  A number of my friends have also been ambassadors for HTR and spoke highly of the great vibe at their races as well as about the high degree of excellence with which they are executed.  The Sunburn Solstice Trail Run certainly delivered on all counts, from an amazing race kit including sunglasses, a metal whistle and a white pine sapling to the start/finish aid station which was fully staffed and fully stocked (e.g. protein balls, M&Ms, veggie dogs, pickles, grilled cheese sandwiches, watermelon, oh my!).  The course was super-clearly marked, the photog was all over the course (thanks to the irrepressible Sue Sitki Photography) and the venue pretty much ideal.  Can't think of a negative thing to say about the day from the organizational perspective!

2.  So many amazing new friends made - While there were all sorts of familiar faces that I was so pleased to have bumped into (K, Sandi, Tyler, Steve, Spencer, Rebecca, April and Melanie to name a few) it was also a tremendous privilege to have shared the course with a whole bunch of new-to-me friends.  From starting the day with Anna (choosing to celebrate her 21st anniversary with her husband at the race), Coffee (yup, that's his name!) and Reza (the eventual full-solstice winner) to meeting Jason (hiking the whole day with a 50-lb. rucksack), Brian, Jeff, Sheila, Craig, Mary, Renate, James, David and Julius (who helped drag my butt through the entire day), they were the ones who helped me to maintain a smile across the miles.

3.  The weather - It was a totally suitable day for an outing called "The Sunburn Solstice" as the conditions included almost full sun with temperatures peaking at around 25°C and only light breezes - a pretty glorious environment all in all.

4.  The course - Despite it being 'only' a 4km loop, there was sufficient variation in terrain to keep things interesting - from a short paved pathway to grassy tracks to, dusty trails to short wooden bridge crossings, and one hairpin turn in a parking lot around a small monument.  The mud was almost negligible (woo hoo!) with only a short 4 ft. patch that actually threatened to encompass shoes.

5.  No tripping or blisters - I'd elected to go full Reebok-kit on the day, including wearing the Floatride Forever Energy on my feet.  Even with road shoes I managed to not stumble or fall, and my feet held up well with no hot spots, rubbing or soreness.  #feelthefloatride !

Alas, it can't all be fun and games ...

1.  Poor fueling - Even though I'd loaded up my handheld with a GU electrolyte drink mix and stored an extra bottle's worth plus a tub of drink mix powder in my cooler at the start/finish pavilion area I somehow managed to neglect to consume enough calories through the first half of the day.  By the time that I hit 42km (around 10:30 am) I was STARVING!!  I'd been up since 2:00 am and really not had much to eat until that point, only sipping on my bottle maybe a handful of times ... so I decided to take a full-blown lunch break at the conclusion of that loop (maybe 20 min.) and downed some grilled cheese sandwiches, several pickles, some coke and a few cupcakes.  I had to then spend the next 30 min. or so just walking the course so that I gave myself sufficient time to digest, and then started up running once more.  And you know what?  After eating I felt like a million bucks!  -1000 points for not having a smart race-fueling strategy.

2.  The heat - Despite my best efforts to dump water on my head regularly, take salt tabs and stay hydrated I think that I fell victim to a moderate form of heat stress.  The course was about 50-60% canopied so it wasn't like we were constantly baked in the sun, but somewhere around 80km into the race my gut was feeling off ... like, waaaayyyy off.  After departing the start/finish aid station at 88km I almost immediately threw up in the grass beside the paved pathway leading into the woods - I then recovered enough to walk/jog for another km before repeating my oh-so-lovely display of wretching.  This continued for the pretty much the last 12km of my day, and thankfully I managed to not compound my situation by becoming seriously dehydrated.  I'm glad that none of the photos captured these moments for posterity.

3.  Only 100km - As ridiculous as it sounds, this was the minimum threshold of what I'd hoped to accomplish on this day, even considering that (a) I'd never run this long or (b) I'd never run this far in one session.  Plus I barely made to this point.  I limped away from the day seriously thinking that I need to bail on the Hallucination 100 miler because there'd be no way that I could pack in another 60km.  However, after a short and slow 8km recovery run the next morning I was back to my ridiculously deluded self and am still planning on making the trip to Hell, Michigan in September.

Lessons Learned
1.  Eat, man, eat! - I've gotta get better at pounding down the necessary calories, especially early in a race.

2.  Walk more - Again this is something that I need to do before I need to do it.

3.  Pacers and crew can make a difference - I'm grateful to Spencer (whom I first met a couple of years ago while pacing at The County Marathon) who jumped in to keep me going at around the halfway point when I just wasn't feeling it anymore.  And there were folks like Anna and Sandi and Julius who lifted my spirits just when things were looking bleak ... in these distances running is definitely a team sport.

4.  Even my hurt can be someone else's hope - The HTR team was gracious enough to recognize me as one of their "Wolf Patch" recipients, stating that "The Wolf Patch is for the runner who exhibits a 'pack mentality' by showing an abundance of compassion and camaraderie on the course to the other runners, staff, and volunteers."  I'm not sure how I was even considered for this as most of my race was focused on trying to keep myself upright and moving forward, but there must have been something in my grimacing and muttering that was perceived as helpful to my fellow competitors.

- - - - - - -

I'll definitely have to add another HTR event to my calendar sometime soon, if even just to be blessed by the amazing energy of the folks who are a part of this tribe!

Next up is another attempt at redemption at The Limberlost Challenge 56k this Saturday - let's see if I'm actually any wiser (if not better) this time around!


07 June 2019

All about kills and blisters: Ragnar Relay Niagara race report

There's nothing quite like living in a van down by the river. :)

Unless it's spending two days in a van with five people you'd never met and trying to plot out how you're going to run 300+ km together.

That was the task that lay before us at this past weekend's Ragnar Relay Niagara as one of two teams sponsored by Reebok Canada.  The first team was a 'corporate team', comprised of 12 employees of Adidas-Reebok, and our team was an 'ultra' team where none of us was officially employed by Reebok (although one of our members is an officially sponsored Reebok athlete).  I had the honour of being recruited to the ultra team by my friend Martyna, and even though I had no practical concerns of covering the distance that would be allocated to me (a total of 49.6km) I was legitimately worried that I would be completely outclassed by my fellow ultra-mates.  I'm happy to say that throughout our time on the road together the last thing that I felt was out of place, and that's entirely to the credit of my generous and incredibly encouraging new friends.

R to L:  Sara, Elisa, Jeph, Filsan, photobomber, Mandy

The overall schedule had our team beginning with the 8:30am wave on Friday May 31 from Legion Fields in Cobourg, Ontario.  We met initially at the Reebok Canada offices in Woodbridge and then loaded our van and traveled in teams to the start line - once there we were treated to a 10-minute 'safety essentials' video (including guidelines about obeying traffic laws and not pooping on people's lawns) and then it was just about waiting to see our first runner (Filsan) embark on the first leg of the journey.  To be fair since we were an 'ultra' team she would be taking on the first two legs of the journey - we had coordinated in advance to split each person's allotment of miles into three double-leg segments instead of six single-legs, thinking that this would provide us with more of an opportunity to get into a decent rhythm as well as not having to play 'race the racer' to the next exchange point (especially since the shortest leg was something like 3km, and watching vans depart from that exchange to get to the next one was akin to watching an episode of The Amazing Race).

Rather than provide a detailed blow-by-blow of the entire 300km run let me provide some highlights from the three segments that I took on, along with some other notable observations and moments ...

Legs 9 & 10 I received the snap-bracelet (in place of a baton) hand-off from a speedy Elisa at the Canlan Ice Sports complex in Oshawa at just before 4pm on Friday.  I tried to offer the team a guesstimate of when I might finish up my 15.4kms, but honestly having just come off of the Sulphur Springs 50 miler not a week before and having twisted my left ankle nicely just two nights before on the trails I wasn't confident about presenting anything that looked like a run effort.  I offered up "1:15 if I'm feeling good, probably more like 1:20-1:25, and less than 1:15 if I run stupid" - and this is what the team had to work off of in terms of timing their arrival at C4 Church in Ajax (exchange point #10).

The legs were officially given the ratings of "easy" (leg 9) and "hard" (leg 10), but from what I could tell the only quality that differentiated the two was that leg 10 had about a kilometre-long stretch that wound its way through a wooded park on dirt trail.  Some of the other legs that were ranked "hard" or "very hard" had significant elevation gains, but for the most part I found that the rating scale had more to do with how much of a clear, safe path runners had underfoot.

I should also note here the "kill" factor - I learned that when you passed a runner on any given leg that was counted as a "kill", and you tallied the number of kills you accumulated and marked them on the side of your team van (along with all sorts of other expressive decor).  Of course the competitor in me found this to be motivating, so the kill count was an important part of each leg.

It was within the first kilometre of leg 9 that I logged my first kill ... and then before completing km 2 I tracked another runner down.  2 kills in 2 km.  "Hmmm" I thought ... I wonder if I could keep this ratio up - and so it went that kilometre after kilometre I was able to catch up to at least one other runner.  By the time that I hit 15km on my Epson RunSense 810 I'd racked up a kill count of 15, and was shoulder-to-shoulder with another runner.

400m to go on a straightaway section of path, with the exchange point in sight.

We each started to pick up the pace.

We each saw one another's raise.

By the time that we had less than 80m to go we were full-out sprinting ... and I was grateful that I'd chosen to wear to the Floatride Run Fast Pro, as the quicker the pace got the more responsive it was.  In the end I managed to edge out my fellow Ragnarian by the slimmest of margins, only to look around and note that my team was not there for the bracelet hand-off.

I had run faster than I said I would, and arrived too early.

Apparently the team joked that I would finish in and around 1:10, but I came in closer to 1:08 ... and my friend Jeph (who had the next legs) was still in the port-a-potty.  After a bit of a mad scramble to try to locate him I was able to complete the exchange and he took off like a rocket.

Distance:  15.7k / Time:  1:07:49 / Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro

Legs 21 & 22
I managed to get next-to-no sleep in advance of my next turn which came at around 12:15am on Saturday - I am grateful to Mandy (the most incredibly positive and enthusiastic person ever, by the way!!) who offered to drive to the exchange point so as to afford me just a bit of shuteye even if it was only in the form of a power-nap.  By the time that it came for me to meet Elisa after her 20km stretch I was the only one not snoozing the night away.

I knew that I was feeling pretty depleted from residual fatigue and the fact that I'd been on the go since 4:00am Friday, so I wasn't sure what kind of pace I would keep over the next 17.3km.  Being that the streets were pretty lonely on the border between Mississauga and Oakville at that hour I just tried to keep some kind of mental focus by eyeballing the next runner ahead of me.  This was made somewhat easier by virtue of the fact that in addition to wearing a headlamp and a reflective vest it was mandatory for each of the nighttime runners to wear a taillight of some kind.

It was pretty surreal plodding through the nearly-deserted streets of the city, being passed by the occasional vehicle (usually a Ragnar team van) and the odd (in more ways than one) pedestrian.  In total I managed to accumulate 17 legitimate kills ... my original count was 23, but then Jeph pointed out to me that at night a number of runners often have a teammate pace them just for safety/company.  After all was said and done I was pleased that I'd managed to keep a respectable pace for this part of my load and felt somewhat refreshed (and ready to drive again) by the time that I handed off to Jeph at exchange point 22.

Distance:  17.3k / Time:  1:25:11 / Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Forever Energy

Legs 33 & 34
This was a challenge from even before I received the bracelet - en route to exchange point 32 we took an unintended circuitous route to hit a Starbucks and that wound up adding some time to our van commute.  Our concerns about making it to the exchange in time to meet up with Elisa were compounded exponentially when we arrived at an open drawbridge at the first lock of the Welland Canal ... needless to say there was no option for vehicles (or runners for that matter) around it and we were held up at least an extra 7-8 minutes awaiting six pleasure-craft to make their way across.

After the exchange finally happened (yes, we left Elisa hanging as she made it there first ...) I tried to once again settle into a manageable 'predatorial' pace.  I gathered that everyone was beginning to feel the weariness of event but there were definitely more than a few folks who were looking fresher than others, and my best guess is that they were probably 12-person team runners who had perhaps snatched a half-decent rest through the night.  While I managed to tally 12 kills I was also passed twice - once in the first leg by a runner who said he'd been hunting me down for about 6km, and once in the second leg by a runner whom I had passed but then managed to pick up speed and overtake me back.

It may have been that my legs were beginning to fail me, or the slowly rising humidity on the day but I could definitely sense my entry into pain cave territory.  The last 4km of the final leg were downright nasty and I imagined that I looked something like a lumbering ent from "The Return of the King".

In my head I kept thinking "Jeph is fast, all I have to do is make it to the hand-off to Jeph" ... add to that the threat of being passed by any other runners and I managed to pick up the pace for the last kilometre to get to exchange point 34.

Distance:  16.8k / Time:  1:23:27 / Shoes: Reebok Floatride Run Fast

Last Stop:  Niagara Falls
I'm not sure that it's mandatory, but it's at least 'tradition' for each team to run the final 100m or so together to cross the finish line.  By now the day had been brought to a slow simmer with pretty close to full sun and temps in the mid-20s ... this left Jeph really toughing it out as the ultimate leg of the relay is essentially all uphill, but we found him and managed to put a bow on our first ever Ragnar Relay together in just over 28 hours.

I simply can't overstate what amazing people my teammates are - to a person I'm confident that we'd all say that we had a fabulous time together, cheering each other on and laughing about the blisters (yep, there were serious blisters - on everyone but me somehow - and even more serious laughter ... right, Sara?!?) that were accumulated over the course of 300+ km of pavement pounding.  Certainly there's something about the ethos of the running community that made this group click, but beyond that we had a kind of chemistry that you really can't orchestrate.  We legitimately started out as strangers and ended our journey as family - and that beats any medal-bling or bragging rights that would come our way.

So many thanks have to go out to:
  • Martyna, Cheyenne and the good people at Reebok Canada for providing us with this amazing opportunity and entrusting us to carry one of the banners for the presenting sponsor.  They took amazing care of us, providing for all of our needs from start to finish
  • Ben Flanagan (Canadian soil 5k record holder and Team Reebok athlete) for sending a hugely-inspiring send-off video to our teams
  • The organizers of the Ragnar Relay for a really well-marked course (coming from a guy who's taken more than a few wrong turns in races) even if there were no "1 mile-ish to go" signs
  • Mandy for suggesting last year that Reebok should consider entering an 'ultra' team, and for being our unwaveringly positive bright light even when half-asleep
  • Filsan for kicking us off in the perfect fashion and looking fashionable the whole way - no one else could have been as reliable, relentless and rock solid
  • Elisa for having that championship spirit and taking on the witching hour 20k section
  • Sara for bringing the heat, taking on the hills and creating the greatest gut-busting moment of the whole experience
  • Jeph for being 'car-dad #1' and showing us that poutine and pizza can turn into jet fuel
  • Our significant others and families for supporting us in crazy ventures like these.
The Reebok Ragnar Relay Niagara was unlike any other running event I'd participated in before - but if this experience was indicative of why there is a whole 'Ragnar culture' that exists (as evidenced by teams from New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin, and more) then I can wholeheartedly endorse this as something that every runner should consider trying at least once.

You just might come away from it with friends for life.

#bemorehuman #feelthefloatride #TeamReebok #RagnarRelay #mindoverblisters