Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Golden Ultra – My first stage race!

My primary goal for this year was to compete in the Canadian Ultra Skyrunning Series. I enjoy following the results for the Skyrunning races in Europe, so I was excited to get in on a piece of the action here at home.  2016 was the inaugural year for Skyrunning in Canada so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into.  As it turned out, it meant I was going to do a lot of racing.

Basically, in order to compete in the series you need to complete up to 4 races on the Skyrunning calendar and you earn points depending on your placement in each race. The finale of the series (in this case the Golden Ultra) is worth an extra 20%.  In order to maximize my points I decided to compete in 4 races including the Golden Ultra.  There were only 4 races that fit my schedule so it wasn’t difficult to choose which ones to race:

Sinister 7 – 1st place, 100 points

Iron Legs 50 mile – 1st place, 100 points

Milford Mountain Marathon – 6th place, 66 points

Golden Ultra 60km – ???

 

Only the 60km race counted towards the Skyrunning point standings, however Magi Scallion (the race director)  suggested that I needed to take part in the entire 85km stage race.  I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea; the first stage was a vertical km (an uphill race where you climb 1000m in 5km or less), and the last day was a cruisey, 22km trail race.  I’m not particularly good at short races and I’m not especially strong at flat races, so neither of these races played to my strengths.  But I have a rubber arm, and 2016 is the year for stepping out of my comfort zone, so I decided I may as well give it a shot.  Thanks for pushing me to try something different Magi 🙂

 


STAGE 1 – “THE BLOOD”

4.7km, 1000m of gain (no descent)

I was really nervous for this event.  People know me as a strong climber, but I don’t feel like I really start catching people on the climbs until I cross the one hour mark.  I also prefer really, really steep climbs.  The type of climbs where I can reach out with my hands and touch the dirt.  Okay, enough sandbagging …

I spent the days leading up to the race endlessly debating with myself on whether or not I should use poles and how hard I should push the pace.  In the end I decided against poles.  I don’t normally use them in training so I thought they would end up as more of a nuisance than a help.

I didn’t have to look at the registration list for very long to see that the 85km stage race had a very competitive field; I’d be doing well to finish in the top 5 ladies for the weekend. I told myself to just focus on the process and do the best I could, maybe I would surprise myself.  I positioned myself a couple of rows back from the start line and tried not to psych myself out too much.  The race began and I found myself run/hiking along with a stampede of people and poles.  The poles were flailing wildly and I was worried that I was going to get stabbed so I pushed ahead as best I could.

Ahead of me I could see Alicia’s red hair flowing up the mountain.  Alicia is a very strong mountain runner and she was my pick to win the entire stage race.  I made a game of seeing how long I could keep her hair in sight.  The trail alternated between, a barely runnable grade and a steeper hiking slope.  Every time it got steeper I would make progress up the field, but as soon as it flattened out people would start to catch back up.  After a couple of km we passed a gondola and the route turned straight up the mountain.  This section was very steep and many runners were literally stopped on the mountain side catching their breath.  I decided this was my chance to make a move so I pushed harder.  If I craned my neck I could see people standing still at the top of the slope.  In my oxygen-deprived state I thought that meant that they had reached the finish line.  I pushed until I thought my lungs might explode, hunched over so far that my hands were in the dirt.  I was passing people and I was proud of myself for putting in such a hard effort.  The sound of my breathing was deafening.

You can imagine my disappointment when I reached the top of the steep grade and found that I was nowhere near the finish line.  I still had another 1-2km to go!  This section of trail was not as steep as the bit I had just finished straight up the mountain. If I’d paced it properly I would have run bits of trail, but I was completely gassed.  I switched into damage control mode and settled into my best power hike.  The trail was super fun with lots of rock steps and spectacular views.  On a regular day I definitely would have stopped to take photos.  As it was, I just survived until I crossed the finish line.

End result – 2nd lady, 3 minutes behind Alicia and about 90 seconds in front of Nicola, two very speedy ladies.  I was thrilled with the result.

 


STAGE 2 – “THE SWEAT”

60km, 2500m of gain

The 60km race was the only race where I thought I had a chance of hitting the podium coming into this weekend.  I had no expectations of winning the race, but I thought that if I raced smart I could maybe sneak into 3rd place.

The day began with a flat 2km run along a road before we turned onto some cruisey single-track.  I ran the road with Nicola and Alicia, chatting easily.  My legs felt very fresh.

As soon as we hit some hills Alicia floated off ahead, while I tucked in behind Nicola. The next couple of hours were uneventful.  I ate a Hammer gel every 30 minutes and drank water whenever I thought about it.  I would walk while I ate,  and each time I did this some people would pass me.  I didn’t stress about it because I knew I would pass most of them back as soon as I got running again, and I’ve learned the eating while running is a recipe for puking.  Nicola and I wound up running the first 20km+ together, the conversation was easy and the pace was steady.  The trails were “flat” and we both wondered when the climbing would begin.

Eventually the trail began to climb and we began to pick off a few runners who had gone out faster than us.  I found the hiking pace comfortable, but I noticed that whenever we got on more runnable flats or downhills Nicola would pull ahead.  I mentally prepared myself that I was going to have to run very hard on the descent if I wanted to make this race competitive.

The trail got steeper and I got happier.  Nicola stepped aside and told me to go ahead.  The views opened up and now I was on steep trail on an open ridge.  I glanced behind a few times but Nicola was nowhere to be seen.  Ahead of me I could see a guy and ahead of him a flash of pink – another lady to chase!

I was in my element.  Steep, boulder-hopping terrain and endless mountain views.  I caught up to the guy ahead of me, it was my friend Alex.  He said he was doing okay, but his climbing legs were fried.  He also said the next two ladies were not too far ahead.

The trail reached a cairned summit, and then turned sharply downwards.  I skipped down the rock steps careful not to slip as they were still covered in a thin layer of snow from last night’s storm.  I ran into the aid station at the top of the gondola in good spirits.  The volunteers refilled my camelbak and told me the next lady was about 2 minutes ahead of me.  The next aid station was 12km straight down the mountainside, it was time to start chasing.

After a kilometre of rock-hopping, the route transitioned onto a switchbacking mountain bike trail, and from there straight back down our vertical km route.  I ran as hard as I could, but the mountain bike trail was hard as concrete and I had a tough time getting my legs moving under me.  I knew that I was destroying my quads and I winced at the thought of racing again tomorrow.  Stay in the moment.

I passed another guy as I reached the base of the ski hill.  I might not be catching the girl, but I was moving up the field.  Magi was at the ski lodge and she directed me to,”follow the girl on the bike!”

The girl lead me through the resort area and across the parking lot to a dancing lobster who was there to direct me onto the trail.  I’d like to say that I was hallucinating, but I’m not making this stuff up!

Now the trail was softer underfoot and I was able to keep up a decent pace.  I wanted to run fast but it was tough to know how hard to push because I still had 20km to go.  Eventually I made it to the final aid station where I accidentally filled my Camelbak with Gatorade instead of water.  This was probably a happy accident because shortly after this I realized I was out of gels.

The last 14km were relatively uneventful, no more steep climbs or descents, just easy running through the forest. I eased back on the effort a bit, confident that if Nicola was going to catch me she would have done it by now, and equally confident that Alicia was well ahead of me.  I told myself that the “girl in pink” wasn’t racing the stage race, so I didn’t need to catch her.

With about 10km to go I came around a corner and was surprised to see Alicia standing there!  She had an upset stomach and had been puking, but seemed to otherwise be in good spirits.  Alicia told me that Katie (the girl in pink) was not far ahead and I should go catch her.  I cruised along at a steady pace, picking off several guys, but I never spotted Katie.

I finished the race in 7:13, 2nd lady and 14 minutes behind Katie.  I discovered that Katie WAS in the stage race, and now I was kicking myself for not finding another gear somewhere along the way.  Looking back on it, I had a very solid race and I don’t think I could have gone more than a few minutes faster.  Katie was definitely the stronger athlete on the day.

 


STAGE 3 – “THE TEARS”

22km, 950m of gain

(my GPS read 21km, with 550m of gain so they may have accidentally missed a hill when they marked the course)

I wasn’t as sore as I thought I’d be going into stage 3, but my legs felt extremely heavy.  I ran a few steps before the race and my quads immediately started to burn.  I took a gel, drank some coffee, and hoped that would be enough stimulation to get my tired body moving.  Katie was 8 minutes ahead of me in the stage race so I lined up at the front of the pack so I could keep tabs on where she was in the field.  As soon as the race began she cruised ahead of me.  I was powerless to keep up so I changed my focus to just doing the best that I could.  The kilometres ticked by and I discovered that my legs started to feel better.  I found myself running up some of the hills and I allowed myself to push harder.

The course was well-marked but we were running through a maze of trails and some of the corners were very sharp. I had to keep my head on a swivel.  At one point I almost missed a junction, taking a couple of steps past it before skidding to a stop when I realized my mistake.  That was a good boost of adrenaline.

My energy levels kept improving and I steadily ramped up the pace.  When I got to the 10km aid station the volunteers told me I was 2nd lady.  Both Alicia and Katie were ahead of me, so I knew someone had gone off course.  This lead to an interesting internal dialogue. My immediate reaction was to let off the gas and let them catch up, but then I thought back to my mistake at Milford a few weeks ago.  I would not have wanted any of those ladies to wait for me.  This is a race and the point of a race is for everyone to run as hard as they can.

The course climbed a series of switchbacks and suddenly I heard two new sounds coming from below; very heavy breathing, and a female speaking with an English accent.  The breathing belonged to a guy who was racing just behind me, and the English accent was Katie.  The guy told me that both he and Katie had gone 30-60s off course, probably in the same spot where I had skidded to a stop.

I kept up a very hard effort.  The guy behind me was strong and we pushed each other to run fast.  I don’t think I have ever run that hard in a race.  I attacked the downhills recklessly, telling myself that as long as I picked up my feet there was no reason for me to fall. I couldn’t hear Katie behind me, but I didn’t dare to look back to see if she was there.

With 4km to go, we hit a small hill and my legs screamed for a break.  The guy behind me cruised ahead while I ate half a gel and tried to convince my legs to give me one final push to the finish line.

The last 3km were pancake flat and totally straight.  I kept my pacer in sight, knowing that if I could see him, Katie was probably within sight behind me.  I resisted the urge to look back.

I finished the race once again in 2nd place, with Katie less than a minute behind me.  I didn’t win the stage race, but I was thrilled to have completed the weekend racing hard right to the end.


FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Golden, and specifically Kicking Horse, is really beautiful.  I did not expect to have ridgeline views like that.
  • The stage race and the 60km “Sweat” are great courses for well-rounded runners.  They have an excellent mix of runnable terrain and what I call “the fun stuff.”
  • I am super excited to try more stage races, maybe something like the TranSelkirks run in Revelstoke.
  • I tend to think of myself as more of a glorified hiker than a runner, but the “Tears” stage has convinced me that maybe I’m a better runner than I give myself credit for.
  • I had zero stomach issues in any of the races.  During the “Blood” stage, whenever I felt a twinge of anything close to nausea I would take a salt pill and drink some water.  This strategy seemed to work.  It wasn’t a hot day but I was taking up to 3 pills an hour.  I also fueled entirely on Hammer Gels of various flavours.
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There’s a First Time For Everything

The last month has been a whirlwind of activity.

Aug 13 – Ironlegs 55 miler

Aug 18 to 29 – Vacation in Iceland

Aug 20 – Reykjavik Marathon (beautiful course but I’d forgotten how painful pavement was)

Sept 2 – 7.5hr drive to Kaslo after working a full day

Sept 3 – Milford Mountain Marathon 52km


I ran very little in Iceland – 3 times to be exact.  I did the marathon and then did a 26km trail run/walk with my niece two days later.  Then there was quite a bit of hiking on moderate terrain and another 9km shakeout run the day we flew out.  Needless to say, I was not feeling particularly fit headed into MMM.

I knew the MMM course had a significant section with off-trail running so I went out for a solo scramble two days before the race to remind myself of what the Rocky Mountains are like. I think I tripped at least 100 times on the rocks and roots.  Iceland and Alberta have very different landscapes and I had forgotten how to pick up my feet.  The last 5 minutes out of my scramble finally felt smooth so I took solace in the fact that I was starting to remember what technical trail running is all about.

The MMM is a very small race with just over 30 starters, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t competitive and the people at the start line looked fit! I tried to tell myself that I was fit too.

The race began with a long climb.  Not only is Iceland lacking in rocks and roots, but it also doesn’t have any monster climbs and my legs felt confused. What’s this big hill all about? I told myself to chill out and enjoy the scenery.  It had been raining all night, but now the rain had stopped and we were climbing through the clouds in a boreal rainforest.  It was gorgeous and the more I relaxed my mindset the more I loved life.  About an hour into the race we climbed up into alpine meadow which was covered in a fresh layer of snow.  It was beautiful, wet and messy; I felt like a kid in a playground.

I’ve noticed that the happier I get the faster I seem to run in relation to those around me.  I had a huge grin on my face and I was working my way up the field.  Soon I caught the lead lady (last year’s winner) as she was treading carefully on the slippery snow.  I noticed that she was wearing Brooks and I made some smart-assed comment about how I used to like those shoes but I stopped wearing them because they’re terrible on wet terrain.  I had barely finished speaking when I fell hard on my ass as my feet slipped out from under me.  Serves me right.

The 2 inches of fresh snow on top of the alpine grasses made for incredibly slick footing.  I gave up on trying to stay on my feet and spent much of my time tobogganing on my bum.  This is where I felt my scrambling background paid off huge.  I am used to falling a lot and generally speaking I know how to do it without hurting myself.  Soon I had pulled away from the other runners and I was on my own.  Staying on your feet is over-rated.

We were travelling on barely visible trail, or sometimes non-trail. We “ran” over slippery boulders and down grassy slopes. There were flags every few metres to mark the route and I was impressed with the care the organizers had taken to ensure runners stayed on track.  I have never participated in a race that travels through that kind of terrain and I felt like I was on one of my adventure runs.  It was awesome!

I was overtaken by another runner at the first aid station about 2 hrs into the race.  He was breathing hard and seemed to be on a mission.  I felt like I should be trying harder but I couldn’t be bothered, I was having too much fun. The aid station volunteers were fantastic and I took advantage of the assortment of Clif Shot Blocks which were laid out on the table.

I know I rave about Sour Dinos and Swedish Berries as my “go to” gummy nutrition options, but Shot Blocks are my favourite.  Unfortunately I don’t eat them much because I am too cheap, so I was super stoked to see them provided for us at this race. I digress…

We had a couple kilometres of fire road to run on after the aid station.  I was getting the impression that there was very little runnable trail on this course, so I made sure to run as much of the fire road as possible to take advantage of the smooth terrain.  The road got steeper and began to switch back before transitioning to non-trail.  I looked behind me on the switchbacks for signs of other runners but no one was in sight.  I was on my own.

The route followed ridge lines on steep terrain, most of it was below snowline so the footing was good.  One uphill was above the snowline and I found myself sliding backwards so I had to grab handfuls of grass and small trees to pull myself up.  Poles would have been helpful 🙂

Mountain guides were stationed along the more exposed sections of the route and one asked me whether or not I’d seen any wildlife.  I guess other runners had seen cougars and bears.  As usual, I was happily oblivious.

Eventually I made it to the second aid station, around 4 hours into the race.  Phew, this was slow going!  The aid station volunteers had a fire going, as well as hot tea and soup; all I wanted was water and Shot Blocks.

From there I ran downhill for what felt like 10 minutes (but I’m sure it was longer) before I hit the next aid station.  I grabbed a couple more Shot Blocks (yay!) and ran down the road before heading up the last climb to Buchanan Lookout.  This section was all fire road and not particularly steep.  I mixed in some running and some walking, I’m sure some people could have run the whole thing but my legs were starting to feel the effort.

Buchanan Lookout was where things started to go south.  I reached the checkpoint and the volunteer asked me what time it was.  What?  Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to know the time?  I wasn’t wearing a watch so I told him I didn’t know.  I laughed as I ran down the trail to “The Monster.”

The race director had admonished us to review the race course maps before running the race and so I had.  I remembered seeing “The Monster” in big letters on the map before the final long downhill.  I also remembered seeing a fire road branch off to the right of The Monster.  I knew we followed the trail for a ways, but then we were supposed to turn right onto the fire road.  Why am I telling you this?

I ran down the trail to an intersection with a fire road.  I stopped on the road to grab a gummy and look around.  I thought this was my junction to turn right, except it didn’t appear to be marked that way.  There were flags on either side of the trail as it crossed the road, and I didn’t see any extra flags heading down the road to my right.  I assumed that the race course must continue down the trail and the fire road must cross “The Monster” twice, with the race course taking the second exit.

While I was standing on the road another runner, Alex, caught up to me.  We descended The Monster together.  There were pink flags along the trail, but the fire road never crossed our path again.  The Monster is a downhill mountain biking trail, definitely not meant for trail running and we were having a hilarious time trying to get down it in one piece.  It was so much fun and I remarked to Alex that I couldn’t believe a race course would be allowed to use a trail like this!

Eventually The Monster exited onto a fire road and we saw the first place runner cruise past us.  Wait! What?!  We realized we had taken a short cut, so we turned right and began to run up the road in the direction the first runner had come from. It was the first time either of us had been lost and we tried to figure out where we had gone wrong. A kilometre or two later we came to the 42km aid station.  Oh crap.  We should be at 37km, not 42km.  The volunteer radioed the RD to explain what had happened and then told us to continue on to the finish.  This was not acceptable to me.  We had severely shortcut the course and I wanted an official result for completing the race.  Continuing on to the finish would result in a disqualification.

After explaining my concerns to the volunteer she spoke with the RD again.  If we didn’t want to be disqualified, we would have to run up to our last missed checkpoint.  I made a mental transition away from race mode and into survival mode.  It would be stupid to overcook myself now and then not even make the 10hr cutoff.

Alex and I ran up to the 37km checkpoint, but after looking at the volunteer’s map we realized that there was still ANOTHER checkpoint that we had missed which we would have to run up to.  We made the trek up to the next CP together and it made the misery a little more manageable.  Meanwhile the first placed lady ran by, then the second … and the third.  Ugh. I stopped counting.

Alex entertained me with stories of ultras gone bad and I tried not to whine too much.  When we finally reached the next checkpoint I was ready to cry tears of relief.  Can I turn around now???

I was too heart-broken to entertain the thought of trying to track all those ladies down so I told Alex to go ahead while I worked to get my head back to it’s happy space.  At least we were headed downhill now …

The run back down the hill and to the finish line was surprisingly quick.  I stopped sulking and focused on smiling and thanking the volunteers.  I was able to catch up to one of the ladies who had passed me.  That felt good.

Matt was waiting for me near the finish line.  He had been told about the mistake I had made going off-course and I was happy that he hadn’t been worrying about why I was so far behind schedule. Alex and the RD were also at the finish line, Alex having finished 7 minutes ahead of me.  We all stood around and discussed “The Junction” and what could have been done to mark it better.  I could see that the RD was really upset over what had happened and I felt for her; being an RD is so hard!  She gave Alex and I vouchers for free entries next year.  I guess I’ll have to come back and redeem myself 🙂

Final stats:

Alex figures we ran an additional 9km with an extra 600m of climbing.  I think that would bring the total to 61km with 3100m of climb.

Total time – 8:09

Place – 6th lady (out of 12 starters), 19th overall (out of 32 starters).

 

What’s next?  There is one race left in the Canadian Skyrunning Ultra Series, The Golden Ultra.  It’s the finale so it’s worth 20% more points.  Of the four ultras I’m running this year, it is by far the most competitive.  I am going to have to run out of my skin (and hopefully get a little lucky). I’m excited for the challenge 🙂

 

Happy Trails!