I went into Sinister 7 knowing that I was going to hurt and willing to embrace the pain, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to go back that deep into the pain cave again, just 6 weeks later at Iron Legs. How bad did I want it? I couldn’t answer that question.
In keeping with my 2016 theme, I had big goals for Iron Legs. I wanted to go under 11 hours, a nice round number which also happened to be the course record. The current record of 11:02 was set last year by Stacie Carrigan (a superior runner) in poor weather conditions. I figured that if I had the perfect day, with perfect weather conditions that there was a chance I could sneak under that magical 11hr mark.
I looked up the course record splits and compared them to the last time I ran this course back in 2013. On that day I had perfect trail conditions but a disastrous second half to my race. I used those splits to guesstimate what my times would have to be for each leg of the course in order to achieve my sub-11hr goal. The splits seemed to be on the scary end of aggressive, but possible.
My lead up to Iron Legs was not quite as focused as I would have liked. I had too many rest days in the 10 days leading up to the race and my nutrition was not perfect. I tend to have very active bowels during races, so I’ve adopted a “no fibre” rule in the two days leading up to a key race. I cheated a little bit on my no-fibre diet leading up to Iron Legs, eating several pieces of 50% wholegrain bread and a few veggies. Apparently low-fibre is not good enough to prevent issues, as I wound of spending a significant amount of time hiding in the bushes.
Leg 1 – 11km, 1:11
The race started comfortably enough. I ran my pace, starting at the front and forcing people to pass me since I hate getting caught up in bottlenecks. Deb and another runner passed me a few kilometres into the race. I didn’t recognize the second girl, but she looked fit. I knew Deb was racing the 60km and I hoped the other girl was as well.
The first bit of excitement for the day came during the descent on Elbow Valley Trail. I noticed some bugs swarming on the trail as I cruised down the switchbacks. I assumed they were flies buzzing around a cow patty, but it turned out they were hornets. I got a couple of stings on my shin and yelped in pain. My friend Mike was running behind me and my yelps weren’t enough to warn him of the danger as he got stung as well. Mike casually mentions that he used to be allergic to hornets. He seemed to be okay, but I knew he wouldn’t be telling me this if he wasn’t at least a little concerned. I had taken an antihistamine pre-race, but I didn’t have any on me to help him out.
We made it to the aid station a few minutes ahead of schedule and Mike was not dead, so I assumed that he was going to be okay. He stopped to get some help at the aid station but I ran straight through after grabbing a 500ml soft flask from Matt.
Leg 2 – 13km, 1:41
I took my time to walk and eat at the start of this leg. I knew I was a few minutes ahead of schedule coming in, so I tried to take advantage of that “free” time. My friend Philippe passed me on this leg, looking strong. I hiked at a good clip going up the mountain and tried to keep him in sight. The views on the ridge were spectacular and I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in this country.
The descent off the ridge is super fun, my favourite kind of technical running. I passed Philippe and Mike caught back up behind me. There was a lot of leap-frogging in this race. Mike told me he had caused the race director, Jamie, a minor heart attack when he had come into the last aid station complaining about the stings and how he used to be allergic. We had a good laugh. I don’t envy the life of a race director, there’s no way to plan for everything.
We were running down through a grassy meadow when Mike asked me about a mountain on the horizon. I looked up for a second, tripped over my feet and went down in a heap. Thankfully the grass was soft and I was able to rebound right away. Dirty trick Mike!
Actually, I think the fall did me some good because it helped me to refocus on the trail. I let my feet go on the technical descent and cruised down into the next aid station where Matt was waiting to switch out my camelbak and refill my food.
Leg 3 – 15km, 2:16
As soon as I stepped onto Ford Knoll trail I could sense my motivation draining. I did not feel like battling this relentless section of trail. I let myself slow down and enjoy an Oreo. I was 12 minutes ahead of schedule, I could back off the pace for a few minutes. I gave myself a mental pep talk. I don’t particularly enjoy the Ford Knoll/Creek section of the race course, but I know that I am good at it. I always pass people on the second half and I needed to have faith that this would happen again.
Mike and I had separated on the descent from Powerface, but he caught back up to me and we ran together for a few minutes until I needed to stop for my first bathroom break. As I turned off trail to find a spot in the woods Kylee came running past. This was her first ultra, but she is captain of the Canadian Skimo team so I knew she would be strong on the climbs. I didn’t like being passed and I resisted the urge to sprint after her once I’d finished in the woods. It was a long race and we weren’t even half done.
Over the next few kilometres several guys passed me by and I found myself questioning my pacing strategy. Was I slacking? No, I wasn’t slacking. Those guys were pushing too hard. I told myself to have confidence, I knew this race as well as anyone.
In the end my pacing strategy paid off. I caught up to Kylee and we talked for a bit before I went ahead. We had been social media friends for awhile and we’d been trying to meet up for a run together, so it was cool to finally meet in person. I also caught and passed all the guys who had run by me on the middle section of the trail. It felt good to have my strategy validated.
I finished the leg in good spirits, filled up a 500ml soft flask, and headed up the trail to Powderface Saddle.
Leg 4 – 9km, 1:11
The climb up to Powderface Saddle is not particularly hard. It has a nice mix of runnable uphill, and steeper terrain for powerhiking. I was leap frogging with another guy and we made good progress. The day was getting hot and as soon as we came to a stream we both stopped to soak our heads. The cool water felt amazing!
I do not normally drink much water, so for this section of trail I had only taken my 500ml soft flask and whatever mouthfuls of water were left over in my bladder from the previous leg. By the time I finished the 30 minute climb up to the top of the saddle I was completely dry! I think that is the fastest I have ever drank water during a race.
There was no point in panicking, so I just focused on keeping a controlled effort during the long, technical descent back to the next aid station. I would have liked to go faster but I remembered an article I’d read recently on running in the warm weather. It’s not the air temperature that’s the problem, it’s the internal heat that we create with our bodies.
I came into the aid station and Matt was there ready to set me up with a fresh camelbak filled with ice water. I gave him my shirt and asked him to soak it in cold water while I took a pit stop at the outhouse.
Leg 5 – 13.9km, 2:13
Heading out on this leg, I knew that I was dehydrated and needed to take some time to regroup. I walked for a few minutes while I ate an Oreo and drank the ice cold water. I felt stiff.
Walking felt impossibly slow so I told myself to try running. That felt better so I kept going and soon I loosened up. I made quick work of that section of trail and before I knew it I was headed up the longest climb of the course.
The switchbacks on Sulphur Springs had no shade and no wind. I was melting so I tried to adjust my pace. I power hiked the hill, drinking water regularly and enjoying the raucous sound of the grasshoppers that seemed to have taken over the grassy slope.
There was a brief reprieve from the climbing and the heat when the trail turned downhill onto shady forest path, but the relief didn’t last long because soon I was back climbing uphill on Pneuma. There was a slight breeze, and the trail was shaded so I felt like I should be able to push a faster pace, but it wasn’t happening. Whenever I tried going faster my head would feel foggy, a headache began to set in. It felt like my body had forgotten how to temperature regulate and it was frustrating. I think it must have been the humidity, or maybe the fact that I had zero heat conditioning.
I was drinking to thirst, and that turned out to be a lot of water, because suddenly I discovered that camelbak was completely dry. I lowered my effort and went into damage control. I had several kilometres ahead with plenty of climbing before the next aid station and I didn’t want to ruin my race now. My friend Eric was out for a run and came cruising by. He tried to encourage me to move faster, but I was happy to continue at my slower pace. Eric was followed by Mike who was moving at a good pace. Mike and I stuck together for most of the rest of the climb. He asked me how I was doing and I confessed that I was out of water. He said he had extra and offered to give some to me. Those 500ml probably saved my race.
By this point I was confident that I would win the race if I didn’t implode with the warm weather, and I found myself struggling to decide how to pace myself. I knew I was behind my 11hr splits, but I wasn’t sure how far off I was since I had lost my sheet with my splits at the last aid station. Should I just take it easy and possibly have a better recovery post-race? Or should I continue to push for my best possible time?
Eventually we made it to the next aid station where Matt was waiting for me with more ice water.
Leg 6 – 10km, 1:33
The volunteers at the aid station were great, showering my head with water while Matt dealt with my pack. It felt so good to cool down. Mike and I left the aid station together, but he was feeling stronger than me so he took off ahead. I walked for a bit while I took in a gel, but then I convinced myself to start running again. Surprisingly my legs didn’t feel that bad. Really, the only thing that was stopping me from moving faster was the warm weather and my fuzzy head.
This leg of the course was an out and back. I was energized watching the lead guys make their way back down the mountain. We got lucky here as the sky clouded over a little bit and the temperature became more manageable. There is no shade on Moose Mountain and the cloud cover was a godsend. Eventually I made it to the turn around and headed back downhill to the aid station. I told myself it was all downhill to the finish (a purposeful lie), just to keep my legs moving.
I kept my eye open for Kylee and any guys who I thought might be trying to pass me on my way back. I would need motivation to keep up the pace all the way to the finish line. Kylee and I crossed paths at the base of the false summit. She looked tired but determined. She told me that she thought she might actually finish this thing and I laughed. Of course she was going to finish, she was killing it!
I ran the rest of the way back to the aid station except for a brief stop in the woods. I cursed my love for wholegrains.
Leg 7 – 13 or 15km (depending on who you talk to), 1:43
Matt refilled my bladder with ice water while Ryan helped me out by pouring more water over my head. Matt gave me a handful of gels and then I was off to conquer the last section of trail.
My legs felt okay, but my feet were sore and my stomach was questionable. I couldn’t help but think that my sore feet were due to the lack of trail running leading into this race. I was annoyed with myself for letting life get in the way of my training, but I also reasoned that the added rest may have been the reason why my legs felt okay.
I cruised the trail as much as I could. Running all the downs and flats, eating every 15 minutes and drinking whenever I wanted (which seemed to be all the time). On a regular training day I can run all the hills on Ridgeback without too much issue, but this time around I was definitely hiking most of them.
My digestive system insisted on one last pit stop before making the final push to the finish. I hadn’t seen anyone in ages so I wasn’t overly careful at making sure I was hidden. Of course that was when a mountain biker decided to ride by. Sorry.
I played every mental trick I could think of on myself to try to get my body to move faster. My legs were okay – they could run uphill without burning – but my mind just wanted to go to sleep and my feet refused to step on any more rocks. I didn’t even like the boardwalk sections because the wood felt too hard underfoot. I told myself the guys ahead were falling apart and I was going to catch them. I envisioned Darren or Kylee running up from behind and passing me. I imagined I was just out on one of my early morning runs.
Matt was waiting for me at the cattle gate, 800m from the finish. I love that gate. I smiled, walked a few steps on the uphill (is there even an uphill here??) and then ran it in to the finish. I was completely exhausted. It had taken every ounce of mental energy to keep pushing for those last 13 (or 15km), when all I wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep.
I finished the race 45 minutes slower than my dream time, but the race was also 2km longer than what I had calculated for my splits. With that in mind, I’ll say that I was 30 minutes slower than my dream time. I’m not sure that I could have made up the extra 30 minutes, I don’t think I was fit enough. If I want to go sub-11hr I will definitely have to do more race specific training. I probably wouldn’t be able to do a July 100 miler like I did this year; I would be better off to do a couple of lead up 50km races.
I’m proud of myself for adapting to the heat, and not being an idiot just because I wanted to make my splits. I feel like my pacing for this race was spot on, although my motivation to run fast was lacking for the last 2-3hrs. I’m also happy with my race nutrition, even though I did make a couple of rookie errors with my hydration. I didn’t sample any of the aid station offerings and stuck to the nutrition that has worked for me on every training run this year; Oreos, Dino Sours and Hammer Gels. The Oreos were a little dry for hot weather, and I had to wash them down with quite a bit of water, but I found they settled my stomach more than the Dino Sours or the gels. I think it’s the salt in the cookie that does the trick.
I took 12 salt pills during the course of the race, and probably could have handled a couple more. I didn’t have any urge to pee, and usually when I get my electrolytes/hydration figured out I’ll have to go at least once or twice.
Post-race recovery has been good. Matt and I went for a nice walk to a local restaurant for brunch on Sunday, and on Monday my legs were recovered enough to play an hour of ultimate frisbee scrimmage.
What’s next?? We are headed to Iceland for a fun family trip, and our hotel happens to be near the start/finish area for the Reykjavik Marathon which runs on Saturday. Saturday also happens to be my birthday, so naturally I’ll be running the race to celebrate. It will be interesting to run on flat ground and at sea level. The rest of our trip will be spent in rural Iceland where I hope to get out for lots of nice walks and enjoy the landscape. I’m looking forward to some chill time 🙂
Special thanks to:
Jamie Nott for putting together a tough and beautiful race.
Rockgear Distribution, for setting me up with the best gear for running in the mountains.
Mike for sharing his water and entertaining me throughout the race
All of the aid station volunteers for making this race happen
My mom for coming out and cheering at Moose Mountain and at the finish line.
Matt for being the most committed partner I could ever ask for and supporting this crazy hobby of mine.
Pack – Ultraspire Velocity
Shoes – Icebug Anima
Socks – Swiftwick
Hydration – 2x 2L hydration bladder (switch them out at each aid station. 500ml soft flask
Nutrition – Hammer gels (various flavours), Oreos, Dino Sours, Salt Stick.