Wow – I’m not even sure where to begin so I’ll just dive right in. The night before the race, I lay awake in bed listening to the pouring rain outside my window and trying not to freak out. All I could think about was scrabbling around on a muddy hill for traction with hundreds of other runners. But by some Thanksgiving miracle or something, by the time Kelly and I arrived at Pinehurst Conservation, the sun was out and we were looking at this gorgeous scenery:
It was still cool out, but a perfect temperature for running. The opening ceremonies started promptly at 8:45 and included members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers piping in the morning with “Amazing Grace” followed by a minute of silence for American and Canadian troops while the two countries’ flags fluttered in the breeze. A woman sang the Star Spangled Banner and Oh, Canada, and then there were a few speeches from the race directors, conservation authority, politicians, etc. It was a very solemn and moving way to start a race and reminded me of the races I’ve done in the States where there always seems to be more of a sense of patriotism and pride.
The kids’ race started off the events and was adorable – they all had number 1 on their bibs and a lot of them were running with little water bottles and stopping to take quick swigs. Apparently their course was one kilometer but they were back in about two minutes…so if the distance was right, then Usain Bolt has some serious competition from a bunch of Canadian kindergartners…!
The 50k and 50k relay started at 9:30 and included four 12.5k loops around the conservation area. The course itself was pretty technical, but I wouldn’t say overly challenging. It was muddy in spots and you had to be careful about slipping, but it wasn’t too bad. It was mostly double track and only occasionally single track, and even had some paved portions which was a nice switch. Trail running takes so much more out of me I find, because you’ve got to lift your feet up to avoid roots and rocks, and you’re constantly switching up your feet, jumping over things, etc. The trail was also relentlessly hilly, both climbs and descents, and included one hill called “The Wall” at kilometer 11 (and since this was a loop, that meant we repeated it four times, including kilometer 48 when your quads are just burning!).
The first time I approached the Wall I ran up it (“ran” being an ambitious word, perhaps) but the next three times I walked it and it FELT AMAZING. I was initially worried I would lose momentum and not be able to start running again at the top, but that wasn’t the case. You use your leg muscles in a different way walking up a hill as opposed to running, and the little break feels so, so good. At the top of the summit there were these two skeletons dressed up for Hallowe’en – eerie. I ran up the other hills on the course but I’m really glad I walked that one in particular and I think it’s a good strategy I’ll be adopting now for any future trail runs.
The first half of the race I had planned to run conservatively, and I actually followed the plan perfectly. My attitude towards racing is usually along the lines of Steve Prefontaine’s famous quote, “The only good race pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die” – ie., go hard or go home! I always figure that if I blow up later on in the course, I can just run the rest nice and easy, but when the distance is 50k I really didn’t want to take that risk and end up hobbling another 32k to finish. So I ran the first loop nice and easy, maintaining a conversational pace with these two runners from South Africa. They were hilarious and it was a really enjoyable loop, but I knew I could pick it up a bit and so I ended up running the second loop with two other guys and another interesting conversation was had for that second 12.5k. One of the guys just qualified for Western States a few weeks ago with a 100 miler! Another one was an Ironman. It’s so much fun to talk about memorable races people have done, training tips, etc. when you’re at a race. I asked them what the biggest mistake they’ve made before a marathon and the Ironman said, “Swimming 2.4 miles and cycling 112 miles right before!”
Finishing the second loop with these two guys. The one in the black tripped so I’m looking back to make sure he’s OK!
And he’s good! (this was the 100 miler dude, so he definitely knew what he was doing!)
But as we approached the third loop, we all checked in with each other. The two guys were a little surprised at our pace, thinking it was too fast, whereas I had honestly been thinking it was too slow. At this point I knew I had to make a choice – play it safe and keep running with them, and most likely finish the race feeling like I still had something in there, or take a risk and pick up the pace and see what I could do.
Well, Shalane Flanagan and her bold, gutsy style of racing continues to be an inspiration to me, so I decided to go for it. By this point in my running, I’m a fairly intuitive runner and I know that it takes me about 10-16km to hit my stride and fully warm up, so I decided to trust my body and push the pace. The third loop was probably my favourite – my feet picked up a smooth cadence and at times I honestly felt like I was gliding over the ground, almost flying. I definitely don’t feel like that on, say, 90% of my runs, so when it happens, I soak it in and just enjoy that effortless feeling.
Because by the fourth loop, nothing was feeling effortless. It became all about the mental aspect of running, and I had to focus on picking off each kilometer. It helped telling myself, “OK, this is the LAST time you’ll ever climb this hill” or “this is the last time you’ll ever see that Boston Bruins camping chair”. Because these were the national Canadian ACU 50k championships, no earphones or music were allowed on the course, which was also pretty challenging. I could hear the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” playing at some point along the course, so I just sang along in my head…over and over haha…
What really helped me push through was having my friend Kelly there to cheer me on. She was at kilometers 6, 9 and 12.5 along the loop so knowing I’d be seeing her three times per loop really helped! The first couple of loops I would say something to her like, “This is fun!” (because it really was!) but by the final loop I looked at her and said, “this is starting to hurt now.” The impact of going up and down so many hills, even though it was on soft terrain, was really starting to make itself known in my glutes and hips. My feet felt great though – at the beginning of the fourth loop a little rock ended up in my right shoe but it was more annoying than painful.
I ended up with a strong finish (always my goal) and crossed the line at 4:17:something (I can’t remember the exact time and the results haven’t been posted online yet). Just like at Gettysburg, the cruel, cruel irony of running 42+ kilometers is that you THINK the pain will stop as soon as you stop running, but it is actually so much worse. It felt like a billion knives were stabbing me all over my legs. Kelly met me after I made it through the little chute for finishers, and she took my shoes off and put on my track pants for me because I couldn’t bend over! I just wanted to sit, and I started crying but Kelly encouraged me to keep walking so I wouldn’t cramp up. We walked over to the medical tent because I was in so much pain, and one of the paramedics started walking with me inside the tent. He told me to line up for a massage, but while I was in line I just started swaying and sobbing and talking to myself out loud. I don’t remember what I was saying. It was actually really scary, I felt so out of it. Anyway, the paramedics at that point came running over to me and got me lying on a bed. My legs had seized up with cramps and I was really lightheaded, so they started massaging my legs (the pressure felt incredible) and wrapped me up in a heat blanket (I looked like a turkey about to go in the oven!) and they gave me a salt water drink. It turns out I was pretty severely dehydrated (I had taken in about 500mLs of water throughout the race, plus four gels) but that wasn’t enough electrolytes, the chief paramedic told me. I needed to be taking in some kind of electrolyte drink like Gatorade or eload while I was running, and also in the week leading up to the race.
So a very valuable lesson was learned yesterday, one that I hope to carry with me in future races. Hydration is SO important and water alone just doesn’t cut it, especially after a certain distance. I feel like I become a better runner each race I do, because you always learn something new, and yesterday was absolutely no exception.
Me, trussed up like a turkey in a tinfoil-esque heat blanket
Because I was in the medical tent, I missed the award ceremonies but I ended up placing fourth female and 14th overall, which even qualified me to win $250. Overall Run for the Toad 2014 was a fantastic experience. I had a great run and even though post-run was not so awesome, I learned a lot. I would definitely recommend the course to any long-distance runner, whether you’re an experienced ultrarunner (there were several running yesterday) or a newbie to trail running or the ultra distance like I was. The 25k and 50k relay options are also great. The organization was superb, the aid stations were well-stocked, spectators and volunteers were positive and enthusiastic, and the post-race food was plentiful, varied and delicious. All participants also received a Nike gym bag with a Run for the Toad name tag, and it’s really roomy and nice.
Thanks for a great day, Toad, and for making me an ultramarathoner!