if there’s anything that i’ve learned in my limited foray into the world of trail and ultra-running its that the competition is less with the field of contestants and more with yourself. it truly is more of a process of self-discovery than speed-discovery.
with that in mind, i feel like an ultra race report ought to highlight lessons learned over mile-markers passed.
lesson #1 – always set two wake-up alarms
the sulphur springs trail run is an annual event taking place in and around ancaster, ontario following the trails of the dundas valley conservation area. that’s about 90 min. from my house which puts it at a manageable travel distance on the day of the race. i’d planned to get up, get in a shakeout run, eat breakfast, nab a shower and then hit the road in order to arrive about 80-90 min. before the start of the 50k distance (50 and 100-milers would have an earlier start). working backwards that would mean a wake-up time of 3:00 am, so i set my trusty clock-radio to the appointed hour … and just before grabbing my shut-eye thought that it might be prudent to also set an old wristwatch alarm just in case.
as in just-in-case-you-set-your-clock-radio-for-3:00-PM!
thankfully those annoying little beeping sounds emanating from that timex knock-off did the trick in terms of rousing me out of my slumber.
gotta know that the day’s going to be an interesting one after that kind of start.
lesson #2 – ’tis better to have taped than to never have taped at all
in my last pre-race entry i noted that i’d been experiencing some intermittent knee pain in the weeks leading up to this race. electing to believe that discretion is the better part of valour (at least this time!) i took three days off last week in order to rest up my knee – and tried to incorporate some additional specific exercises and rolling pin application as a number of friends let me know that they thought that i was dealing with ITB syndrome. i still wasn’t convinced that that was the real culprit as my symptoms didn’t all match up with the typical indicators (e.g. i could run on it without pain) and i had been very attentive over the past 14-16 months to work on glute and core strength.
still, not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, when my friend rhonda-marie offered to apply some k-tape if i showed up early enough at the start line i thought that i had nothing to lose (thanks #batgirl!). wearing kinesiology tape was a new experience, and while i could feel that bit of additional support that it provided it might well fall into the same category as compression socks for me – probably more of a psychological benefit/confidence boost than anything.
how did it work out for me? a number of friends who i encountered on race day (as well as others that i only really crossed paths with via social media) asked how my knee was holding up out on the course – and the short answer is that it wasn’t an issue whatsoever. i guess +1 for k-tape!
lesson #3 – if you’re out there, you’re a runner
our 7:30am start included the 25k and 50k racers in a ‘starting chute’ formation a bit of a ways back from the actual timing start/finish timing mat because some of the longer distance runners were already completing first loops. it was a bit of a mass gathering which meant that faster and slower runners were all bunched together for the first kilometre or so – the saving grace of that was that the initial few hundred metres were on a very wide swath of trail, albeit it a 58m or so drop (providing a foretaste of the ascent that each loop would conclude with …). since the full trail loop was 20k both the 25k and 50k competitors would have to complete an initial ‘spur’ or abbreviated section of the trail loop – and this worked well, as it provided enough incentive to run a controlled pace from the get-go. the conventional wisdom about running an ultra well is that it’s not about who runs the fastest pace but who slows the least – so a glob of people all together for the first 2.5k or so was just fine.
after the 25k runners had their initial turnaround point (a course-marshaled hairpin that almost had me sideswiping my friend kathleen) the group thinned out exponentially. it was a strange transition to go from a shoulder-to-shoulder parade out on the trails to being almost completely alone at the 5k mark. where it got really interesting (at least from a social point of view) was after the first 10k spur, because then i started intersecting with some of the 50 milers, 100 milers and 100 mile relay runners. from that point forward it was one big encouragement-a-palooza out there, as i looked on with (and voiced my) admiration at/for runners who were tackling the more ‘conventional’ ultra-distances – and from time to time i might scoot by someone and hear them say “you’re looking really strong!”. it reminded me that big, small, faster, slower, we were all out there to do battle with those forces of inertia, or negative energies and histories that might try to persuade us that it’s easier to not run.
one particularly inspiring individual was a man competing in the 25k race that i passed several times – each lap i let him know just how much of a warrior i thought that he was. on spec i figured that he had suffered some kind of stroke or had a particular type of palsy, as the one side of his body including his arm and leg seem to be curled a bit and certainly had a limited range of motion. after doing some research on the race results i found out that his name is jess heroux and that in 1993 he had an aneurysm which indeed had paralyzed his right side. but the dude was a beast out there, and made my efforts seem mediocre in comparison.
lesson #4 – keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
during our wednesday night trail runs sensei jim has (half-seriously) offered to provide workshops on how to fall properly. it involves something of a tuck-and-roll method to use your momentum in an effort to minimize any significant impact and also to allow you to get up and keep going as soon as possible.
while i didn’t physically practice this, i took good mental notes. and i’m glad that i did.
twice the trails came up and bit me.
the first time was at about 28km when i got distracted by trying to reel in a runner who was about 20m in front of me. by fixing my attention on trying to catch him i became totally oblivious to the ‘rooty’ section of path that we were traversing. even the runner behind me said (post-fall) that she could totally see my tumble coming.
but it was a real ‘matrix’ moment in the process of being tripped up and falling – while i instinctively put out my hands to brace for impact (thank goodness for my nathan quickdraw elite handheld bottle providing a crash pad) i also found that my brain switched into super slo-mo mode and i had enough wherewithal to process that i should turn into the ground with my shoulder (left was my preference) and tumble along with the ground rather than into it. and you know what? even though i went down i managed not to miss a beat – and actually caught that runner without any additional effort.
the second fall came at around 40km in – this time it was just a matter of mental fatigue from having been out on the course for about 3h45m at this point. in a road race you can get away with shuffling your feet a bit more, but not so on terra natura. the events of this fall were almost identical to the previous one except that my initial bracing action resulted in my payment of a pound of flesh to the spirit of sulphur springs.
call it machismo, adrenaline or outright stubbornness i didn’t think much of this scrape after i got up to keep going – until i thought my waterbottle was leaking from landing on it. and then i realized that i wasn’t carrying my bottle in the hand that felt all wet. yep … i was leaving behind your regular CSI-worthy bloodtrail dripping off of my hand, spraying DNA samples with every cycle of arm swing. i even had to refrain high-fiving some of my friends who happened to be running towards me on the same path for fear of hemoglobin spatter blinding them after we’d make contact. thankfully i wasn’t far from the next aid station where they graciously bandaged me up in F-1 pit-stop fashion so that i didn’t lose much time.
all in all i spent 95-98% of my time on the trail running, only having really stopped to:
- – get rid of a rock in my shoe (always, always, always take the time to do this – especially in an ultra as a minor irritation now can become a major headache later)
- – take a quick trailside pee
- – powerhike several steep hills (i found the course very runnable – only 50% of the hills required slowing to walking pace, and many sections of the course you could even plot to take the tangents to save time/steps)
- – avail myself of nutrition at four aid stations (i downed eight GU gels – a record, i might say – but also picked up something at every aid station but several times managed to just keep moving through … i paused once to re-fill my bottle, once to grab a PB+J sandwich from my drop-bag and twice to down a handful of pretzels).
lesson #5 – trail markers won’t do any good if you don’t follow them
i thought that i’d done my due diligence in advance of this race considering i wasn’t familiar with the dundas valley conservation area trail system before (unless i’d traversed some of it following the orienteering lead of my friend sean in last fall’s raid the hammer adventure race). i watched various race recap videos on YouTube, read and re-read the 2015 race participant guide. and then having completed a full first loop of the course, you’d think that i knew where i was going.
you’d be mistaken.
i think that by the time that most of the 50k runners had completed the first loop a few of the less-necessary marshals were relieved from their posts – and since there were other hikers and cyclists on the course some of the yellow caution tape which had been draped across trail intersections to indicate the correct direction of travel had been dropped to form more of a ‘line in the sand’. and therein lay my problem.
at 29.4 k i missed a hard right turn uphill onto “Lookout Trail”, and wound up scooting down a section of trail (after obviously skipping over/past some fallen caution tape) for just over 500m before i came across a 50-mile runner going the opposite way. he was gracious enough to yell “are you going the wrong way?”, to which my immediate response was “am i?!?”. he replied back “you’ll know at the bottom”, since i was descending about 20m into another intersection. at that nexus i found three cyclists resting on a bench and asked whether or not they’d seen any other runners coming down the path that i’d just run down – and to my dismay they responded “no, everyone’s coming from that way” pointing to their immediate left. since i’d read in hal koerner’s field guide to ultrarunning that the rules (usually enforced by the honour system) of ultras is that any diversion from the official course must be rectified by returning back to the point of departure to reassume the actual route i turned around to climb back up the hill and rejoin the Lookout Trail after covering a little more than an extra kilometre.
what did it cost me? well, aside from just some additional discomfort from hammering my right big toe for that extra 1100m or so (c’mon, what’s an ultra without a blackened toenail?) i know that i lost a couple of places in the chase. in the end i finished the race feeling strong, albeit not having laid everything out on the line … i felt like i basically cruised through the entire race. crossing the timing mats in 4:38:41 (meeting my ‘C’ goal) i officially claimed 14th place overall (meeting my ‘B’ goal). in terms of age-group placing, the results table shows me in 13th since their official age-group bracket is 0-98 years … but if you don’t mind some creative accounting, had there been a 40-49 male AG then i would have taken 4th spot (and meeting my ‘A’ goal).
lesson #6 – free massage? did somebody say free massage?
even though i felt good crossing the finish line i knew that i would be wise to start the recovery process as quickly as possible – so i put in a 5-10 minute walkabout the grass and then made my way to the food tent where they graciously provided some juice, fruit, yogourt and a pulled pork (or pulled chicken) hot sandwich.
there was also a bunch of massage tables set up courtesy of students from trillium college. after signing up on their ‘reservation list’ i waited all of about two minutes before my name was called and i was introduced to marcy who asked a few quick questions about any injuries, medications or current aches/pains. even though i noted the k-tape on my knee she chose to focus on my achilles tendon (which had been surgically repaired after a complete rupture in 2006). as i lay on the sun-heated massage table and had my right calf, hamstring and glute-area worked on i wondered to myself why i’d never taken advantage of post-race massages before. i suppose that in larger races when it’s been offered the line-up/wait time was prohibitively long … but i will be looking for this added-value service again. not sure whether or it not the actual massage was of any real benefit, but the relaxing time on the table made it worth the while. and between the massage, the k-tape and wearing my tiux compression socks all the next day i’m pleased to say that my knee has not acted up really since the race. after all was said and done i wonder if maybe it wasn’t just an atypical ITB issue but in fact some minor degree of lateral meniscus tear from attempting to find faster (and safer) ways of bombing down trail descents by employing a ‘slalom’ style of foot placement (angling from side to side).
all told this was an excellent race experience – the trails were in superb condition (i heard numerous times that it looked the best that others had seen in years for this event … as witnessed by a new course record in the 50k distance) and the organization was top notch. the weather was about as nice as it could be, and getting to/from the locale was a piece of cake.
speaking of cake, it’s time to enjoy some … a full week off until resuming training for the north face endurance challenge series 50-miler. woo hoo!
race gear for the 2015 sulphur springs trail run 50k: