Over the course of a 100 mile race a lot of things can go wrong.
Consistently successful ultrarunners are able to adapt to unexpected changes in circumstance. All of my DNFs have been a result of my inability to adjust such challenges, but as I gain experience I believe I am learning to be an adaptable athlete. Fast forward to Sinister 7 …
I originally registered for this run as a preparation race for Fat Dog 120. As time went on and I had a couple of good races earlier in the season, I began to raise my expectations. I would not only run to finish the race, I would compete. Race day came and I felt fresh, fit and focused. Not wanting a repeat of my sluggish morning at Blackfoot, I made sure to grab a coffee before the race in addition to my usual PB and honey on toast.
Hanging out pre-race. Leo and Moxie are good friends.
Hanging out near the start line
Leg One – 16.5km, 502m gain, 329m loss
The first leg of the race is approximately 16km. The course ducks into a ditch and runs beside the train tracks for a bIt before transitioning to a few kilometres of flatish gravel and paved roads. I viewed these first few kilometres as free distance so I didn’t worry about trying to go super slow. I ran comfortably and made sure my breathing wasn’t elevated. The second half of leg one includes a long hill up a gravel road, followed by some nice double-track trail and some short sections of extreme single-track.
Extreme single-track – narrow, overgrown trail that takes the most direct route between Point A and Point B. Because of the direct route, these trails are extremely steep. Runners are unable to see deadfall, trenches or rocks that may lurk beneath the dense foliage.
I took out my poles as soon as we hit the gravel road and began to hike/run up. I focused on keeping the effort easy and smooth. No heavy breathing, no burning legs. The wild flowers were in full bloom and the sun was shining brightly in the cloudless sky. I was too focused on the race to take any photos, but I soaked in the beauty of it and tried not to think about how hot the day was going to get.
Leg Two – 16km, 937m gain, 1110m loss
I didn’t bother refilling my water at TA1/2 and continued straight up the trail. The next few kilometers were gentle switchbacks up to Hastings Ridge. We were climbing through an old burn scar and the views were amazing. The charred trees contrasted with the green undergrowth and colourful flowers.
At this point in the race I was in second place, but during the climb Deb came running up behind me. She looked strong. To be honest, I was surprised that she wasn’t ahead of me from the beginning. We said hi and she cruised up the trail while I continued my run/hiking. Deb stayed within eyesight for the next few kilometers before I caught back up near the next checkpoint. I didn’t want to stay in sight of her once I passed her so I pushed a little harder for the next few minutes.
The trail climbed up a ridiculously steep incline before dropping back down an equally steep decline. This is where I realized I’d gotten my math all wrong and I should have refilled my camelback at the checkpoint. Oh well, at least I was in the shade. Running the next 6km without water wasn’t going to kill me.
I took my time on the extreme single-track. I remembered my busted ankle early in the race at Bighorn, and I didn’t want to repeat my mistake this early in the game. I used my poles to search for obstacles underneath the dense foliage. I imagined that I must look like a blind person, feeling out their way.
Deb must have taken it easy on the downhill as well because I didn’t see her when I came into TA 2/3 to restock my bag. I handed off my bag to Matt as I came into the transition area, and he restocked it with food, ice and water while I gorged myself on coke and watermelon.
Running into TA 2/3
Leg Three – 35km, 1327m gain, 1327m loss
Leg three is nicknamed Satan’s Sack. It is after this leg that most people drop out of the race. I was mentally prepared to suffer.
The leg is shaped like a lollipop with a long uphill grind to start. There was no shade, no wind and just relentless heat. I was thankful for the ice cold water in my pack and the bandana filled with ice wrapped around my neck. Without the ice my race would have been entirely different.
I hiked 90% of the hill while relay runners cruised past me. My legs still felt fresh, but not that fresh. After the climb there was a very steep drop to a creek before we turned off onto the loop portion of the leg. I took a moment at the creek to soak my shirt and hat. I’ve run several ultras in the heat, and I know that any time you take to cool your body will pay off in the end.
I turned onto the loop and was greeted with a wonderful breeze, the first breeze of the day! The trail wound through fields of daisies and Crowsnest Mountain baked in the sun on the horizon. I was in a very happy place as I ran along easily. Satan’s Sack? What are people talking about, this was fantastic!
I still had plenty of water left at the checkpoint so I skipped it and ran/hiked ahead for the next 6.5km of mostly uphill trail through the burn scar. The trail slowly got steeper and the last of my ice melted. There was no shade and the gentle breeze was nowhere to be found. More hiking, less running. I made sure to keep my effort low so that I wouldn’t overheat. I reached the next checkpoint just as I finished off the last of my water. Perfect timing!
The water was warm and I didn’t find much relief from the heat as I jogged through another 6km to the next checkpoint. By this point the relay runners were struggling so I found myself passing people every few minutes. Eventually the trail stopped climbing and the route began a long descent back to the end of the loop. This side of the mountain was even hotter than the ascent trail as the sun’s rays reflected off the baked dirt. I drank water but it offered no relief, so I just focused on jogging easy and smooth down the trail.
I ran straight through the next checkpoint, but I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had a headache and I was starting to feel a little woozy. Just as I was beginning to contemplate walking, I found a creek. Once again I stopped, soaked my shirt, my hat and my head in the cold spring water. I took a couple extra minutes to keep my head in the cold water until I could feel the effects of the heat wear off. I was at the creek for maybe 5 minutes. During that time several relay runners passed me, none of them took the time to cool off.
The soak in the creek revitalized me and I was able to run the rest of the loop up to the steep climb that marked the return route back to TA 2/3. I passed all the runners who had run by me while I was cooling off. It was satisfying to see my decision pay off.
I kept a steady pace on the long descent back to the TA, my water running out minutes before I handed off my pack to Matt. I was feeling fresh and ready to tackle the rest of the course, happy with my progress so far.
My departure from the TA was delayed a bit because I had ripped a hole in my shoes during the descent. I took some time to change my shoes, and while I was changing shoes I remembered that I had a toenail which was in the process of being ripped off by my socks. We took a moment to perform some emergency toenail surgery, and then I was off.
Leg Four – 17km, 675m gain, 617m loss
I munched on a bag of potato chips as I hiked up the hill out of the TA. With the extra time spent in transition I was certain that Deb wasn’t far behind so I kept an eye open for her as I left. I didn’t see Deb, but a cheerful voice called out, “Hey! Are you Joanna? I’ve heard about you!” It was Dennene Huntley, a lady who I’d never met but who I’d also heard about 🙂
She was not far behind me so I hoped that she would have to spend some time stocking up in the TA. I crested the top of the steep climb and was able to jog/hike the next portion of nice, rolling single-track. A few kilometres later I encountered my next obstacle. The top strap on my pack detached from the pack and I was unable to run without my pack bouncing all over the place. I spent about 10 minutes trying to re-attach the strap before I finally came up with a crude knot that seemed to hold it in place.
As I was fiddling with my equipment I kept one eye looking over my shoulder for Dennene, but she was nowhere in sight. I knew I could easily fix my pack with a couple of safety pins, and I was able to find some in a volunteer’s first-aid kit 10km down the trail. Thanks volunteer! Up to this point I had been running gingerly, not wanting to stress the knot too much, but now I had confidence my pack would stay in one piece.
I continued to hike the ups and run the downs/flats all the way to the next TA. I felt okay but I was starting to feel tired. 500m from TA4 the skies opened up and it began to pour. The dirt road I was running down turned to mud that caked onto my shoes. My happy demeanor cracked. In the span of 5 minutes I went from relatively happy to miserable. My energy levels had probably been dropping for awhile but I’d been too pre-occupied with the pack to notice.
I sat down in a chair, sheltered from the rain and let myself be miserable. I cried a little bit. Matt was there with several of my trail running friends. They wrapped me in a blanket while a sipped on broth and nibbled on meatballs. Everything was super salty and it tasted disgusting. My friends convinced me to dip jam sandwiches into the super salty broth, that was even more repulsive!
While I sat there feeling sorry for myself Dennene caught up, as well as another girl. Dennene was acting energetic, but I had a sneaking suspicion that she was putting on a show because she could see how miserable I was. I watched her leave down the trail and I had absolutely no competitive drive to chase her down.
Leg 5 – 29.6km, 763m gain, 638m loss
Now in 4th place, I slowly dragged myself out of there. I felt a great sense of relief not to be racing any more and I focused on just getting myself to the finish line. I’d been sitting for so long that I could hardly stand, so I hobbled down the trail at a snail’s pace. I had confidence that I’d loosen up within a few minutes, and I did.
As soon as I was loose enough to stand up straight I felt like I needed to burp. The burp was actually puke and I vomited up everything I had just eaten on the trail. I tried to straighten up again, and I vomited again. This continued until there was nothing left to purge.
Usually when I puke I continue to feel crappy for the rest of the race, but this time was different. This time I made an action plan. I decided to turn on my music for a little motivation. I would shuffle/jog for a song and I would walk for a song. Every walking song I would take a very small bite of Eat More and a few sips of water. 45 minutes later I was happily jogging along the trail, even running up the hills. The trail was muddy and extremely slippery, but I used my poles for leverage so that I was able to keep a jog going. I was so happy to be out of my slump that I didn’t even care that it was pouring rain and the trail was deteriorating into a mud bath.
As my energy increased I decided to run for 2 songs, walk for 1 song. The puddles had grown to the size where they were now completely unavoidable. Some of them were thigh deep others only a few inches. I practiced my cane skills and felt the ground in the muddy water before wading through.
I caught back up with Dennene a few kilometres before TA5/6. I knew I’d been moving well, but catching up to her was still a huge surprise. The race was back on!
By the time I finished leg 5 the rain had stopped and the sun had set, it was time to run through the night.
Leg 6 – 36.2km, 1093m gain, 1093m loss
From the beginning, I had planned to take a break at TA 5/6. I get sleepy in the wee hours of the morning and I didn’t want to have to take a nap. The plan was to have some savoury food along with some coffee and hopefully avoid sleeping.
Matt met me at the TA with coffee and Bailey’s, as well as a pizza. I am so spoiled. I sat in a chair to eat and drink while Alan found a sleeping bag to wrap me in. The food/drink hit the spot, so after taking the time to change into some warmer clothes I was eager to go.
The Sinister 7 course is impeccably marked, but the TA between Legs 5,6 and 7 is a little confusing. Thankfully Alan pointed me in the right direction. I wanted to regain the same form I’d had at the end of Leg 5 so I turned the music back on on my phone. Unfortunately my phone decided to quit on me so I was left to motivate myself. Inspired by Vincent Bouchard’s race report from last year, I began to repeat my mantra:
I am tough, I am strong, this is where, I belong
Running an ultramarathon, singing a song, moving along.
Repeat x 1000
The trail climbed gradually but it was very slick with mud so I was doing a lot more walking than running. Still, I was moving at a decent pace and I soon caught up to Dennene who had left the TA ahead of me. She was puking and struggling to regain her energy. I told her about my recovery strategy from earlier in the day and then moved on down the trail. I thought about staying with her as support, but there were lots of relay runners around to help so I reasoned with myself that she wasn’t in any danger, she was just having a rough patch.
I focused on keeping a good strong pace as I hiked up the mountain. The trail was extremely wet, sometimes with a creek flowing directly down it. The trail grew steeper with each kilometer and the once runnable slope became difficult even to power-hike. I was breathing much harder than I thought I should be so I figured I must be bonking. I forced myself to nibble on a Clif Bar. I probably should have stuck to Eat Mores because it took me nearly 2hrs to finish that bar.
At 1:13am I reached a checkpoint 12km up from the TA and I was able to refill my water. The volunteer manning the aid station said the next checkpoint was 8.5km up the hill. 8.5km more of climbing?! I started doing the math to see if I could still finish the race under 24hrs. Suddenly finishing sub-24 was more important to me than anything else, and I hoped that I could muster some energy for the downhill.
The trail was stupid steep and slick from the mud, I wondered how people without poles were doing it. I felt like I was moving slower than a snail, but I was still able to pass some relay runners so I couldn’t have been going that slow. The wind picked up and even though it was dark I could feel that I was above the treeline. It felt like I was on top of a mountain, how could I still have 7km of climbing left to go?!
The trail dropped steeply and I began a technical descent down muddy rocks. I passed a relay runner and asked him if we had more climbing or if that had been the summit. He confirmed that yes, we were on our way back down the mountain. Suddenly sub-24hrs was back in the cards and I trotted down the steep, muddy trail with a spring in my step.
I reached the next checkpoint at 2:44am. They informed me that I was 2nd lady; the girl who had passed me at TA4 must have dropped out! I tried to maintain a respectable pace for the next 6km until I could reach the final checkpoint. If I got there by 3:30am I was sure I could walk it in and still reach the finish line in less than 24hrs.
I shuffled into the next checkpoint at 3:38am, a little behind my arbitrary schedule. In my mind the last leg of the race was 12.8km, but one of the runners at the checkpoint corrected me. The last leg was only 10.7km. With the extra 2km of cushion sub-24hrs was assured if I just kept walking. By this point in the run my quads were completely fatigued. Mentally I felt like I had energy, and my other leg muscles felt like they might have something left in them, but my quads were done. I didn’t even try to run for the rest of the race.
Leg 7 – 10.7km, 390m gain, 562m loss
I arrived at the transition area at 4:50am. Matt was there to take care of me but I just wanted to get to the end. I handed him my jacket and told him I was aiming to reach the finish line before 7am. Matt pointed me in the direction of Leg 7 and off I went up the hill.
The final 500m or so of this leg is on the road. I really wanted to finish strong but I could barely lift my legs up from the ground. I shuffled to the finish line, totally spent.
2nd lady, 10th overall, 23:44.
Final “sprint” to the finish
Simultaneously smiling, crying and sleeping.
All smiles with Brandy and Matt post-race. Eat More still stuck to my face 🙂
Showing off my finisher’s wine and medal