As I've begun to know more people at these events you always hear about 'that' particular race - the one where veterans nod knowingly as they describe weather so terrible, rain so horizontal, conditions so dreadful. This was one of those races. I'm sure it was never Diane's (race RD) intention to create such a race but I think any ultra RD takes pride in creating a truly memorable event both in it's uniqueness and toughness. Ultra runners don't want easy. They want to be challenged. They want to get beat up and fight back and learn more about themselves. This race delivered.
Let's look at the stats:
69 intrepid souls towed the line at 5 a.m.
41 people finished in various states of dishevelment
28 people either got lost and called it quits or missed the Aid Station cut-off
Percentage of finishes: 59% with 41% drop rate
Of the races I've participated in so far that is the highest drop rate I've seen. Now, I've read the single blog report which is posted on the LS100 site so far which comes from Kent Keeler (the 100km winner in this race - report here). Uber congratulations to him. But these guys and gals are, well, like SUPER fit and their reports are never going to tell it like it is for the majority of us so I'm going to give a mid-pack runner perspective.
Of 41 finishers I placed either 31st, 32nd or 33rd. It does not matter. Two brothers and I finished together (Ibrahim Asghar and Sheraz Asghar); arms around one another as we descended the final road section to the makeshift army tent - an oasis of light for our hungry souls. By that point it was not about rushing ahead for the glory of a few minutes faster than a fellow competitor. We'd all been beat up and having company over the last hour or two was far more preferable. Our times were 18 hours 48 minutes. Diane greeted us with a huge smile and congratulated us all and when she gave us a hug and placed that army style dog tag finishing medal in my hand it all seemed worthwhile.
Please bear with me. I tend to write how I think - out of order - and as one thought intrudes I tend to put pen to paper and finish that thought. But if you are patient we'll get to the start, the middle and the end, I promise. It's the journey that counts :)
By this point it was almost 11pm and had been zero degrees for a good number of hours. We were all cold to the bone and managed to hobble the rest of the way to the large cabin which was deliciously warm and find a bench to finally sit down on. It was quiet inside and there were only one or two runners there sorting through returned drop bags with about 20 soldiers present. They looked at us as they probably looked at each of the crazy runners that came in out of the cold through those doors over the last 5 or 6 hours. It's that same look doctors give us when they hear or see our injuries and shake their heads and suggest we stop running or cut back on it or why we even do it in the first place. It's admiration mixed with a 'you're all crazy' look.
We were told there was food available under banquet style metal containers but my first thought was just to sit. Reality still was trying to assert itself on my consciousness and the light seemed too bright and the feeling of warmth didn't seem quite real. I removed my gloves and then I began shivering uncontrollably as my body tried to warm itself. There was no time to waste, however, when after only a few minutes one of the soldiers announced that a bus had just arrived to take us back to the parking lot if we were ready. Things were not going to get any better and I was not going to be any more ready in an hour or even longer and so the remaining 5-6 of us grabbed our drop bags and walked back out into the cold to the starting line. There we boarded the bus which took about 7 minutes to get to the big parking lot.
Upon arriving we navigated the biggest 'hill' of the night - those 4 steps down off the bus! The driver had likely never seen a more pathetic sight. I got into the car and put the heater on full blast until I felt I might be able to manage the drive home. The usual deep tissue pain to the legs began in earnest as I drove, throbbing madly. By this point it was past midnight and of course as I approached every bloody traffic light it went yellow. My driving technique consisted of my arms lifting my leg on and off the accelerator.
Finally I made it in the door, still with my garbage bag over my body and my shoes no longer recognizable. There was little pain on taking them off - they were too cold to know the difference, having been submerged much of the last 18 hours in cold muddy water. However, I was fully aware over the journey that the silly ankle socks kept slipping further down into my shoe and were filled with mud and grit and debris and that it was not going to be a pretty site when I showered. Every time I found a sizable downed tree with my name on it on the return leg, I sat and tried pulling them up out of my shoe as I felt the skin being shredded along the way. Most people would love the thought of a hot shower after such exertions but I knew the suffering would really begin once clean warm water hit those abrasions.
I ate very little that night and after downing two Advil went to bed, fully expecting not to wake until noon that day. Alas, I woke early(ish) at 8:30am and spent the morning chatting to Kimberly Van Delst about her race the day before and after she left, cleaning up the dried mud I deposited and sorting out the laundry and drop bag items. The shoes took ages to clean and still the water is slightly muddy coming out of them. They did me proud though, the Hokka Stinson Trail. No blisters and at this point I think I have 2-3 black toenails but with the amount of crud deposited in my shoe it is no wonder. Had my socks been high enough or if I had gaiters, much of what happened to my feet would not have occurred.
The following photos are rather graphic and yes, it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch. The feet are a swollen mess and It's going to be quite a few days before I put on a pair of shoes. Anyway, hopefully you don't have a full stomach and are not about to eat something delicious.
|100 grain sandpaper applied over 18 hours - what do you think of the finish?|
|It felt allot nicer submerged in the muddy cold water|
Unfortunately I didn't take my camera along to give you more insight into the race but I'm sure Diane and others will. I might add a few from other sources to give you an idea of the sights along way.
For all you Canadians you'll know the kind of winter we've had and it has not been pleasant. Blizzard after blizzard. More snow than I can remember in many years and near record cold temperatures. I braved the trails occasionally over the winter months with Henri and his gang of Trail Apes as he calls us. He is the head Trail Ape and his partner in crime is Diane (RD of this race). He is a trooper and gets us all out there when some of us (yes, that would be me) would prefer to sleep in and not run with dribbling noses in minus 15 with the wind-chill. He had a great race and it was well deserved. He put in the time and it paid off. Another of our Trail Apes is Greg and he's at home in the trails and had a 5th place finish. It was his longest race ever and I knew if he got the pacing right he'd do well so I'm glad he proved me right. He has a crazy, friendly, happy dog called Ramona who joins us on our weekend runs and she is a delight, charging up and down the line of runners endlessly.
The weeks leading up to the race were a constant consultation with the weather man and with other runners and with myself who lives very close to Short Hills Provincial Park where the race started and finished. I would go out in Short Hills on my own and do my usual 2 hour 15 minute circuit and as we approached April I was worried. There was slippery compacted ice on the course from countless skiers and hikers and dog walkers - and huge sections were turning into a mud pit barely fit for walking. I spent countless minutes finding a tree to scrape the clay and gunk off my shoes as they become concrete slippers.
The final forecast called for 10-15cm of rain the day before with a cool race day with some sunny periods throughout. Because of all the rain, Diane decided that part of the course around Balls Falls was too dangerous and they put us on the road to bypass it. Also, the parking area within Short Hills and the Scout Camp was just too water-logged which meant we were to park about 3km away and be shuttled in.
I was able to pack everything I needed in the days before and slept relatively well on the Thursday. New for this race was Dulse (dried seaweed to replace sodium and potassium) and Cliff Shot Blocks (orange flavour - yum). Both worked a treat. I did dry-heave after running close to 5 hours but had no cramping and I was happy with how things worked out.
Prior to the race I had invited Cameron Lutley and Kimberley Van Delst to stay the night at Casa del Alex since they live a bit of a way and it was a very early start. Cameron was going to share a hotel with Kat but Kimberly was happy to stay and was great company. She arrived Friday afternoon with a 4x4 FULL of crates and her boundless enthusiasm for all things. We had discussed race tactics and each of us kind of felt this was a race we would do together and enjoy the experience rather than killing ourselves. Each of us knows how things unfold in unexpected ways and this race was no exception.
We headed to bed around 9:30pm and sleep was not fitful but I had a reasonable rest between then and 2am when the alarm went off although I could hear the wind quite alot. We roused at different times with our own schedules and I had a small bowl of cereal with a banana and then got ready. By 3:15 we were out the door and the journey had begun. On our way to the parking lot our path was blocked as a huge ship passing through the Welland Canal. Then the bridge came down and we were back on our way. There were very few cars in the parking lot and within about 5 minutes one of the yellow school-buses arrived and about 8-9 of us got on board for the short journey to the Scout Camp within Short Hills. There was no rain but your breath was clear and it was certainly cool out if you were standing around - no worries there since we had no intention of standing around long.
Kimberly and I put our 2 drop bags in the hut and said hello to our fellow runners who we know. There was Steven Park whose birthday it was that day. I got a chance to view the BoB (Beast of Burden 100 mile) tattoo on his calf - a fitting reminder of his first ultra win. Then there was Jack Kilislian and Cameron, Maryka, Ron handing out his straws and all the others. Within the cabin were a whole bunch of soldiers.
Don't forget, this was another very unusual element to an ultra event. Diane had partnered up with the army. This was a field exercise for various units from Toronto and locally I believe and they were setting up and manning the aid stations and dealing with some of the logistics. Diane was the brainchild and co-ordinated everything beautifully. The army gave her a plaque at the beginning to recognize her efforts and gave a short speech and we all applauded. Then Diane took the stage and described the race and the markings. Shortly after that we were told it was 3 minutes to the start and to get our asses outside.
After all my careful preparation I still screwed up in a major way. I had a crappy headlamp I've had for years but last year I bought a Petzl MXO which was brilliant at Dirty Girls 48 hours. I intended on using the crappy light along with a hand-held flashlight until Aid Station 4 (the Eastern loops) for the outward journey with my Petzl available at aid station 7 on the way back. Somehow I forget my Petzl in the car. The headlight I had was totally crap and while the penlight saved the day it was not pretty sometimes and meant my hands were full. In the end I ran with the headlight all the way to Aid Station 7 instead of dropping it at 4 and then got it on the way back. Actually, running with a headlight is pretty easy and you don't feel the weight. I"m sure the shoulder stiffness is not from it - hopefully!
What I wore
I safety-pinned my bib number to my long stretchy skin-tight pants which are ancient and are about 5 inches shorter than my ankles. Under them were a pair of shorts. I had my new Hokas and ankle socks (remember them? Bad idea in mud as you and I now know - or maybe you knew it already). On top I had a short sleeve skintight Under Armour shirt, then a loosely fitting long-sleeve shirt, breathable, followed by a warmer long-sleeve jacked with pockets. I had 5-finger gloves and a hat and I wore a garbage bag on top thinking I'd discard it when I warmed up but actually wore the whole race. My belt pack had salt tablets and Advil and gel blocks with a Perpetuem container on one side and a pure Hammer Gel formula in my other container. My pockets contained a pen-light flashlight for when it got dark out and Dulse. I held a handheld yellow Amphid water bottle.
When I got dressed I applied Body Glide to the soles of my feet, armpits and private parts and Bag Balm to where the sun don't shine! I had duct taped the pinky toes worrying that the Hokas might not be spacious enough.
Still with me? Where were we? Ah yes. We walked about 100 yards to the official start on a hard packed gravel road with mud and water surrounding us. The start at 5am was compliments of the army who were sporting enough to bring along a real cannon which they set off. Never had that before. We were forewarned to open our mouths before it went off and I think some of us were thinking it was some kind of joke. Looking at watches and seeing it was not April 1st (April Fools Day) we complied - the object is not to burst an eardrum I guess. I and many others looked at each other with mouths open and covered our ears and then BAMMMMMM and off we went.
I found Kim in the final moment before the start and we lingered near the back of the pack, starting very slowly as we headed up the first gentle hill of the day. It was over quickly and we were going to be heading out from Short Hills to do the 24km Eastern section of the route, come back into Short Hills and then go out West to Beamsville and return along the same route to the Scout Camp. We dive right from the road and start following the pink markers. Down a short gravelly road to a bridge at the bottom and then all hell let loose as we got our first taste of what this course was going to consist of.
It was actually funny as we initially were going up the hill away from the camp because people (myself included) were side-stepping puddles in some attempt to keep our feet dry! Duhhhh. At the bottom it was immediately foot soaking mud. There go the dry feet. I know this section well and you'll see how ironic that is in a few moments.
There is a shortish flat section here and then you cross a tiny bridge and begin your climb into the trees and the hills of Short Hills. I'm following the others ahead, in no hurry, Kim by my side and others closely behind or ahead and we come to an arrow pointing left but everybody I see heads further up the trail to the right, following the little pink flags. I heard someone comment but didn't hear and carried on with the rest of the lemmings.
The funny thing is that I KNOW this section very well. I run it, I studied the map we all got and I knew I didn't want to go as far as Wiley Road because that is where we come BACK from to head back down the same hill and go back to the start many hours and km later. But here I am, at a road which I know to be Wiley Road with many runners carrying on and others grouping around me as they come out. I'm saying, um, I think we are going the wrong way. I yell out to those ahead, YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY. But they don't stop! Holy crap. 5 minutes in and already the race is unraveling. I've got headlights shining in my face and runners coming up the trail asking what is going on and some are pulling out their maps and I say, listen, this is my stomping ground. We are going the wrong way. We should have turned at that arrow back down the trail. I'm surprised no wise-ass said to me, if you know the fucking trails so well how come you're standing here with the rest of us! Back down we went. . . The reason I ended up where so many others did is because a) I never run there at night and b) I never run the trail in that particular direction. Either one of those things can make a trail look completely different.
After that we get back to the arrow and head up the hill and get to the correct road, Decew. Or should that be 'Whewwww'. Anyway. Disaster averted (for some anyway). I think I made a few friends. ha ha. There was a police car at the road with blue lights flashing and it felt slightly weird and ominous but we headed out onto the road, did a left further down and disappeared into the darkness. At that point I looked around and there was no sign of Kimberly so I carried on. I'd love to give you all a blow-by-blow of the various sections but honestly it's going to be impossible. There was so much variety and so many struggles but I'll try to give you the highlights.
Just so you know some of the points when I mention them here is an attachment with the course map if you are interested.
The Eastern section of the route was way easier than the Western. I wish they took times at the various aid stations but I got back to Aid Station 4 (Morningstar) after 3 hours 5 minutes (22.7km). I can't imagine doing a 1/2 marathon in over 3 hours! Wow. Ok, so it gives you an idea this wasn't an easy course. On that section I remember certain things. I remember a lovely run around a reservoir on the flat top of the dyke. At that point I passed a few moving lights. These were obviously some of the slower runners who were smarter than the rest of us back at that arrow. I'd say, hi, keep it up, and move forward. There was a steep road section down. At that point there was some sleet/snow landing but that soon let up. It was decidedly cold however. It got light eventually and by that point I was running along a riverbank trail called 'The Twelve Side Trail'.
At the top of the creek there was an army tent and we were informed we had to run 1/2 way up the hill and then come back down - odd, but who am I to argue. Up until this point it was going swimmingly. I could see runners on the other side heading back to Short Hills and my spirits and strength were good. At Aid station 4 I didn't take anything which was stupid and I learned a lesson from another runner. Your mind is often befuddled when you are in an ultra. You think you need something or don't think you need something but if you write it down beforehand ON YOUR DROPBAG OR CRATE then you don't have to think. Just follow directions. Anyway, I didn't pull out my Dulse like I was supposed to or change over my energy drink like I was supposed to. Duhhhh.
I got back to Short Hills and began the dreadful Western Loop. Short Hills itself was a mud bog and many sections further out were even worse. The hundreds of feet trampling through made things even more challenging and churned up. Ah yes, let's not forget the army boys and girls! They had two events going on, a relay challenge and a solo encumbered one I believe. Anyway. I'd see these army people with their fully laden bergens or packs running and walking in combat boots. That must have been bloody hard going! So we were really respectful of one another. They didn't understand how we ran so bloody far and we didn't understand how they carried so much stuff on their backs. Everybody was really friendly and supportive.
We had a longish road section bypassing Balls Falls but headed back into the Bruce Trail just past it and damn was it impressive! I've seen it at different times of year but holy crappola it was a mini Niagara Falls. It was roaring with all the rain water and ice melt and was very impressive. We cross a small bridge where you could watch the water on it's final journey before going over and you would have been swept away in an instant if you'd fallen in there.
There were many distinct sections to the trail. We were following the Bruce Trail markers and sometimes there would be little pink flags indicating where we needed to pay more attention. Trail markings are white patches on a tree. One patch means straight ahead. Two patches with the right one higher means go right and with the patch higher on the left means go left. Unfortunately there are also blue trail markings which indicate side trails off the Bruce Trail and I ended up on one of these during the race and lost about 30 minutes.
There were times we were high up on the escarpment looking down towards the lake with a wonderful view. There were sections of trail with huge rocks which were flattened but had fissures and made you jump from rock to rock. There were sections which were relatively dry and manageable and there were big boggy sections which you just had to dive right in. And the section between Aid Station 6 and 7 was my least favorite. It entailed multiple climbs straight up or down the escarpment with loose rocks and mud that you got very bad purchase on and slid back down. On the way back in the dark I was almost crapping myself and took it super gingerly and I have to admit I yelled out several times things my Mother would NOT be proud to hear. In fact the word Mother was used in combination as well!
I was happy for a short reprieve after Aid Station 7 where I finally dumped my headlight. There was a road section and I was never so happy for some solid footing. I'll talk more about the aid stations separately but there were big army tents manned with personal. The main street crossings had really vigilant police cars with lights flashing and some even drove their cars to block traffic. They really were great.
I was really tired as I trundled into Aid Station 10 and was dreading the return journey but happy I was going to be on the homeward stretch. I'd seen various runners heading back towards me over the last several hours and it was great to see Steven, Henri and others and give them an 'atta boy!' Unfortunately I forget that Aid Station 10 was not the turn-around and as I started back, fortunately one of the army personal was paying attention and told me I had to go up the hill and then come back. I was crushed but headed up into a knarly section of rocks and fallen trees which was annoying. Then onto a road to an army dude by the road marking our numbers. I touched the sign and headed the 2km back to Aid Station 10. I did try a little soup broth here and it was delicious.
Back along the way I was flagging big time. I came across some runners who said they got lost and were quitting and others who were now worried they would not make the cut off. I ran across Kimberly at a really nice spot along the course and she told me about hurting her knee and pain killers not helping and not wanting to make things worse. I was really bummed for her but understood her reasons and she has many more races to finish but she did go all the way to the Westernmost point and got 62.8km on her feet. I got back to Aid Station 7 eventually and had more broth and collected my headlight. Over the following hours the light began to go and at some point I ended up on a blue trail. One moment I'd seen the white marking and then nothing. Then an army guy comes up and says have I seen any markings and I say no. He says he'll go ahead a bit more and from about 200 feet yells he sees markings and carries on. I see another army guy climbing a hill ahead of the first one. I get to the point he was at and see blue trail markings and think, SHIT. I walk back to the last white marker and look around but don't see any markings at all and by then my mind is thinking maybe part is on the blue marking so I go back and follow the trail.
30 minutes later I come across a T-intersection with pink flags and white Bruce Trail markings and it's a relief but then I'm thinking - what bloody direction do I go? Amazing timing as there is a guy at the bottom of the hill and I yell out to him which aid station did he come from, etc. and we finally get within hearing distance and I'm relieved that he is headed in the right direction. I have no idea where I was but I'll have to ask Henri when I see him. We carried on together for quite a while. I think it might have been one of the brothers I ended up finishing with but I can't remember as there were still many miles to go.
After this it is dark and the headlight gets turned on. Stephan runs past with another guy and I try to keep up with him for a bit but am toast very quickly. I pass the other guy he is with eventually and then it's hard to keep track of who is who. I get back to the section I'm very worried about with those multiple steep climbs and am finally passed that section. Me and one other guy are close together and our lights find each other from time to time. The coldness is really seeping into me now and my 5-finger gloves are causing my fingers to freeze up. I have little to no sensation in my fingers and simply grasping my water bottle is a struggle and as I sip I'm getting ice flakes developing so it's cold. I dropped my bottle a few times as I was navigating the hills and was getting quite pissed about the whole situation. ha ha.
I found another run/walk buddy and we shared stories and races we'd done and races we were doing, etc. It was nice to finally have someone to chat with and be with and I was able to prevent him going the wrong way once and he was able to help me out of one section where it looked like usual brown mud but I stepped in and immediately was in deep sucking mud about a foot deep which I could not get out of. This one glued both feet and without him tugging me from the side I would have either got a cramp or ended up on my ass.
At some point he was gone again and I was alone but after one hill I recognized I was back in Short Hills at a big hydro tower. I looked back and saw 3 lights coming up from behind me and was frustrated I had nothing left. Honestly I thought it was Maryka, Marylou and Clay as I'd seen them many hours earlier and knew in longer races Maryka always catches me. I walked on and as the 3 lights got to me asked who was there and it was nobody I knew so I stayed with them until I couldn't any longer. Then within Short Hills I came across another runner, the other brother! I told him to go ahead if he could but he said he wanted the company and I was really happy about it.
We walked and walked and by this point I was breathing really really heavily and struggling. My cold breathe was coming out in steaming plumes and my throat was feeling really sore. I asked him a number of times to give me a moment while I planted my hands on my knees and struggled to catch my breath even though we were barely walking. He was patient and we carried on and finally we got to the long road section in Short Hills which comes out to Wiley Road. I was never so happy. I informed my new friend what was to come. 'We go up these 6 or 7 little rolling hills, pass the barricade at Wiley Road, walk down the Road and go back into the trails downhill now. There will be a steep treacherous section near the bottom, then a tiny bridge followed by a total quagmire, then another bridge and an upward rolling hill on gravel to the Scout Camp Road. I think he was happy I knew what was coming and how close we were to the finish.
We got to the quagmire and see a torchlight coming towards us and it turns out it's the brother who was with me earlier. He believes he is lost. They are reunited just 1km from the finish. We walk along and it's just mud and filth. We see one pink flag and then again I'm thinking, maybe I went wrong so we backtrack to the flag but I think no, this has got to be the right way and we turn around again. We then get to a final indicator that I recognize and I'm thankful I have not lead them astray so close to the finish. Up over the bridge, onto the rolling hill to the concrete blocks and a left onto the Scout Camp Road. We walk towards the light and the finish, my arms around their shoulders; myself and Ibrahim Asghar and Sheraz Asghar, new friends. Congratulations guys and look forward to seeing you again.
Aid Stations / Markings
It was really novel having the army involvement. I must say they did a really good job in so many ways. There were lone soldiers at different places on the road and they must have been freezing their asses off waiting for us. The troops out there were very friendly and enthusiastic and encouraging. It was different from other aid stations put on by ultra runners though. Some of the stations were really good and helped you fill bottles and wanted to get you everything you needed and some you would have to ask where the water was or if they had any food. A number had hardly anything out on the table where we could access the food. It was in containers behind where they would have potatoes or perogies or soup/broth and other goodies. Some did ask if you'd like anything and others would tell you what was on offer. At Aid Station 10 they seemed more interested in their army runners and were all standing around chatting. Don't get me wrong. They were friendly but I came very close to making a huge mistake and turning around thinking I was at the turnaround point. My fault also as it was all in the map/instructions but by that point I was addled.
Another novelty of this race was the combination of flag markings at ground level and Bruce Trail markings on trees. I know runners made mistakes out there. Some it cost them their races and others it cost them some time like me. Some finished just fine so I'm not going to make excuses. I think there could have been additional flags put out that would have made a difference but the mud also buried quite a few of them. I think overall as an inaugural event both Diane and the Army did a SUPER job and I really hope there is a 2015 race. It was my hardest race to date and while I'm going to be healing for a number of days I am really proud to have finished this event.
Congratulations to everybody out there.
My next race is either Pick Your Poison 50km in about 3 weeks, otherwise the end of May where I've registered for the Sulphur Springs 50 miler.
Until then, keep on running and thank you for your patience going through another long race report.