Tag Archives: trail running

black spur ultra 108k race report: adoptive families, self inflicted suffering, bikes, etc.

I’ve had a season full of stops and starts, full of cancelled races, missed weeks of training. It’s been pretty hard to actually get into the rhythm of regular running because of all the injury. First it was patelo-phemoral pain, then shin splints, then more shin splints, then more again. Then just when I thought I was in the clear, bone scans told me I had a stress fracture in my tibia. Goose cooked.

I missed what would have been the most competitive ultra I’ve ever done in the Cayuga Trails 50 miler, but I refocused, spent many hours in the pool and at the gym trying to halt the backslide of fitness. Luckily I love being outside so it wasn’t hard to keep the life stoke high… it was pretty hard to be excited about running though, honestly.

Before I ever ran an ultra marathon, I had looked at Black Spur Ultra 108k in the Rockies in Kimberley, BC and thought that it would be an epic race and a beautiful thing to do. I loosely set my sites on it. I’ve thought about that race many many times since I started running. Steady as she goes. Each year I was building, and this spring I felt fit enough, ready enough to train and give this race my best shot. But you never know what will happen: here I was arriving at the airport in Cranbrook, cruising through the smoky skies, and being greeted by no view at all. My tibia still felt weird, my throat was getting itchy, I had started to sneeze and blow my nose, and a very real threat of cancellation due to forest fires raging all over the province. This would not be “what I signed up for.”

The first thing I did was to head downtown to rent myself a bike so I wouldn’t have to walk/run 4k to AND from the Kimberley Alpine Resort. At the evening briefing I met a family: the woman, a non-runner, with her husband (a self identified non-trainer) doing the 108k, and their two 20-something boys gunning for the win in the 54k. They adopted me, and how comforting it was to have my adopted mum at the aid station each time I rolled through.

I was all alone at my Air Bnb, pretty isolated from everything going on around me, so I had a lot of time to doubt myself. Early in the year I had set some lofty goals for this race, a sub 13h and podium finish. Now I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to finish, whether I’d remembered in this past month of no running how to keep a pace, whether the smoke would force me to quit, whether my leg would give out, or my stomach. The lack of long runs this summer might jeopardize my ability to digest during the event. Stomach issues can end your race pretty quickly. Heck, I didn’t even know if I’d be starting with all the wild fires. Basically there was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of self doubt – a lot!

So I was relieved (more than anything else) when the gun finally went off Saturday morning. I ended up in the front group along with some 54k speedsters and some relay runners (also going faster). But I’ve matured. I went out conservatively, really just thinking about finishing injury-free.

Normally, Black Spur is a clover: three loops (we’ll call them A, B, and C) which the 54k runners do once each, while the 104k runners do twice each. Because of the fires, we were alternating A,C,A,C,A,C. Loop A is 16k with almost 900m+ elevation, while loop C is about 19k with 670m+.

On the first loop there is one long climb up to a ridge that starts as a road and fairly quickly kicks up and becomes a goat path. I went up this in a controlled manner, chatting with some other runners. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 10 at this point, but it was hard to say.

I descended very gingerly all the highly technical powder-dry single track into a shale rock ravine, and finished the first 16k feeling pretty good, and gaining a bit of confidence about my leg. I wasted no time at all in the aid station and felt I was moving quickly on the more flowy single track of loop C. But less than half way through I was caught by two runners. One of whom very shortly after sped away from us on a climb and into an eventual podium finish.

I spent the next 40k at least with Doug. We chatted, laughed, commiserated. We didn’t actually run together very much. We more yo-yoed. I would get ahead on the climbs, Doug would catch and pass me on the descents. It is fascinating to observe the high and low points of two different runners on the same course. Sometimes Doug would fly by me, whooping with joy while I seemingly shuffled down the mountain, nursing my blistered feet. Other times I’d energetically hike right past Doug on some steep uphill, keeping a strong rhythm youhooing into the smoky mountains and the quiet forest.

My last race was Sulphur Springs 50k, where I probably would have done a lot better if I hadn’t succumbed to one fatal error: not enough electrolyte. That error led to 20k of cramping. This time, I was on top of the electrolytes, and the two isolated times I felt the beginning of a cramp I made sure to drink double electrolyte drink at the next aid station. I also focused on balancing out all the sweetness of my (albeit delicious) Clif Bars and Endurance Tap maple syrup gels with salty snacks at the aid stations: chips, pickles, the works. I always chat with aid station volunteers because what they are doing is so selfless, and in many ways just as hard as what we runners are doing. But I never spent more than 2 or 3 minutes maximum in an aid station, and often much less.

One of the last aid stations that Doug and I rolled into together, I noticed that he had the words “not all pain is significant” written on his arm. We talked about this. We all make an informed decision to self-inflict this “suffering” on ourselves. We do it because it teaches us something about our own resilience. It is training for the real suffering of life. As our feet blister and pop, our muscles tear in thousands of places and each step becomes painful, even agonizing, there is a deep understanding that this pain, this physical (and even emotional) suffering is insignificant in the absolute sense of that word. It does not matter.

This may sound masochistic or egotistical, but I think it would describe it as meditative and deliberate. When you do an event that takes all day (or more, or much much more) you find that just as  in life, you are surrounded by people who are going through the same pain, the same vomiting and cramps, the same spasms as you. They are also experiencing the same euphoric highs, the same outpouring of gratitude and love. They understand and respect, and are supportive, compassionate. All that is true. And, in the end, you are alone. It may not have been possible to do without the support of other – that is true – , but in the end you go your own speed, you leave and get eft behind, and when you arrive at the silly blow-up arch at the finish, and the small crowd has gathered to cheer you on, you cross that line into the empty dark  alone.

In the last 40k I felt pretty good, and was eating well, about 300kcal/h. I was even able to push the last loop very hard as night fell and we all became moving lumens in the pit of the smoke-black night. I willed my legs to turn over, to fly back. I drifted far enough in front of Doug, that he didn’t end up closing the gap. I ran myself into 4th place for about an hour, and then fell back to what ended up a 5th place finish. As I hobbled or barrelled (depending on your point of view) down the ski hill into the finishing stretch, I could hear the announcer and the small gaggle of people clapping and cheering in the gathering cold. I didn’t collapse at the finish. I took my finisher’s medal and my beer. I leaned down into the pain in my hamstrings, the pain everywhere, into the dark ground, into the relief, into the happiness. I leaned down alone, into my dusty shoes.

My adoptive mother was there with a bucket of water for me to wash my legs. My socks were drenched in blood. I ate some (heavenly) soup and I gave my beer to a guy who was in the tent to change his shoes. He still had 35k to go. That was it. As I coasted down the hill on my rented cruiser bike toward home, I thought of all the many people still out there in the dark. I was done, I was pretty darn elated with 13h52m and 5th place, mostly because nothing went wrong: I did not vomit, I did not cramp, I did not break my leg (!!), I did not get nauseous, I did not get suffocated by the smoke. And if I had, it would not have been all that important, because as Doug reminded me, not all pain is significant.

 

The rest of my trip was a combination of cramming my blistered feet into climbing shoes and struggling (very happily) up my first multi-pitch climb with my childhood friend Aaron and sharing with other adopted families! We hiked a few days of the beautiful Sunshine Coast Trail with Aaron’s amazing family; I laughed til it hurt; I became very well acquainted indeed with BC Ferries; and I capped it all off with a lot of excellent coffee in Victoria, where the true highlight was the people. I was welcomed, loved, guided, and deeply inspired by the generosity, creativity, calm, and openness of my dear friend Kayla and her housemates, partner, friends, and community.

 

Now I’m home, and hot damn I feel recharged!!!!

 

A bzillian thanks to all the (to me) nameless volunteers, to Brian Gallant and the Sinister 7 crew for putting on such a fantastic event; to Doug for the company and perspective, to Patty from Purcell Outdoors for being a friendly face out on the course and in town; to Trevor from Mountain Works Kimberley for the freedom of a bike in town; to my amazing magician of a coach Laura for getting me here, to the generous support of Clif Bar for keeping me fed in all my training and racing, and to Endurance Tap for keeping the tank full of maple syrup on race day!!

Finally, thanks to my dear friends Aaron for making race recovery fun and sendy, to Gillian, Ranjit, and Janet for the laughs and amazing hiking; to Kayla (and co) for making Victoria a welcoming, fun, inspiring, and accessible (yay bikes and gardens) place and showing me what rich community can look like!

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projects and reasons

The drying hills, dustier by the day, have a way of soaking up the passage of time, of soaking up just about everything. Except maybe the nightly fireworks, and the sky. The whole month of August swept under my feet so quickly I have had little time to contemplate what it meant.

I have spent a lot of time sitting on a chair at work, running errands, cooking, sleeping (maybe not enough), staring at a screen (definitely too much). This monotonous routine – what we call the “necessities” of life – provides moments to learn from, moments that allow me to better appreciate what it is that I love to do. Like being sick (writhing to the rhythm of gut cramps, spending all day on a toilet, or shaking with the heat of a raging fever) sitting on a chair staring at a screen makes me sure it’s not what I want to be doing, and sure of the joy that I get from pushing my body, being on the trail, in the mountains, between pines and peaks.

This past month has been one of some of the biggest physical objectives, the most ambitious outdoor projects that I’ve yet undertaken. Hopefully it’s just the beginning.

 

A project:

In my thirst, like the dry mountains, to soak up everything while I am privileged enough to be here, I’ve been on a constant look out for routes through high places that challenge my physical, mental, and emotional limits. The moments that I crave while sitting on that chair, looking at that screen. I’ve already done a few spectacular longer routes (such as Salkantay and Lares), but it’s not a bucket list. I hate the cliché. It’s not a list at all. It’s breathing in the mountains, covering myself in the endless sky.

The project came to be via a friend, Andres, whose idea it was to run the iconic out-and-back route to the ruins of Choquequirao. (Lonely Planet just deemed Machu Picchu’s sister city as the number one destination to visit in Peru.) The route is about 60km (57km as it turned out) and usually takes fit hikers 3 to 4 days to complete. On 4 August, we donned our minimalist vests and running shoes and set out to benchmark a Fastest Known Time (or FKT) on the route. Starting from the village of Cachora, the trail starts on a high plateau before plummeting down more than 1500m to the floor of a churning river. I can only guess that water was responsible for this, that as you look down from the upper trail, down below the diving stone walls and ancient trails scraped into their sides in an endless Z pattern, down to the white thread below, carving and sweeping through the immense grey-orange canyon – that water and tectonics were responsible.

The thing about moving through this terrain at all, and especially “fast,” is that it can be immensely rewarding, infinitely beautiful. I use the iceberg analogy to explain this: the experience of a one-time event can be the the spectacular tip of an iceberg, but below the surface, to be able to enjoy it, there is a gargantuan time- and energy-commitment, months of sweating it out daily for hours on end. If you are not prepared, it can be quite “unfun,” even dangerous.

It had been some time since I had felt so good moving through nature, through the mountains. Full of raw euphoria. Not a forced emotion, not a thought-out or rational process that comes like a “oh, I should appreciate this because it’s special, few people get to see it.” Instead there was a smile, a hoot just bubbling beneath my lips. I did some whooping and shouting especially on the descents.

After hitting the river, the stifling heat and bugs, you go back up the other side. It’s equally as steep and the going is slow, but we stayed steady, looking across the canyon behind us to sheer cliffs, a zig-zagging trail and into the grey sky. We made it to the gate of the ruins, stretched, ate, and turned around. Then it was 8km of tight steep dusty switchbacks down to the river, where the humidity and bugs kept us moving across the bridge and back up the other side. From this point on, we passed a fairly steady stream of donkeys, guides, and bewildered hikers with their huge packs. After pushing to run the last 12k of rolling dirt road, we finally made it back to Cachora, setting a “fast time” of 9h 36m. Being able to feel so good, enjoy the movement of my body, the scenery, even the monotony was a huge privilege. Neither Andres nor I are under any illusions of course: this record could have 2 hours taken off of it by a pro, and can certainly be lowered by other dedicated runners. And it will be, and I can’t wait to see that!

A race:

On 26 August I lined up with 75 other people in the small mountain village of Lares in the cold morning. After having tossed and turned under the glow of fluorescent lights, the pounding and tinny huayno music and the shouts and laughs of drunken locals all night, I arose at 5am to check in and line up.

Only three weeks later and the memories seem to have faded into the jagged peaks. I can see the bushes, cut with orange flagging across the side of the first climb, a mountain reaching to a panoramic plateau. Fighting through this section, branches whipping my face, cutting my lenses, I tailed the 5th place runner until it really kicked up and I was able to pass him. Hiking and scrambling up to a second plateau, shuffling through high mountain hamlets where leather-skinned campesinos cheered, clapping their slow hands, calling their shepherd dogs out from behind adobe walls.

I picked off 100k runners (who had started 10 hours earlier and 40k before us, passing through towers of black stone and blue-white hanging glaciers in the black of night, the white of fog). On a long and technical descent into a small town I was passed by Lorena, the #1 woman. For the next 25k I kept her (just) in sight and finally, shortly after the red-black Ipsaijasa pass that rose like a castle wall from the green pampa, the last high point of the race at 4500m, I was able to catch and pass her. The last 22k of cruisy downhill punctuated by short, steep climbs, went by slowly. I just wanted to finish. The heat grew with every step down into the valley, and though I was eating well (something that I have struggled with since getting into running) and my legs felt fairly good – despite that, psychologically I just wanted to be done. I wanted to stop at the river crossings and bathe in the cool clear water. But I pushed down through the towns, pastures, forested river banks, and arrived with a spring in my step on the streets of Ollantaytambo, cruising in to the central plaza and the finish line in 9h 20mins, and the cheers of strangers and close friends alike

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As I sit here at my computer, dreaming of the mountains, of the thin air and the biting teeth of ridges of rock, I am reminded of what it is to live, to explore the places that take the breath from my lungs. I’ve got another race on the horizon. As a mountain experience, it will be more pared down: most of the race will be run at night so I’ll only have my feet, my ears, my gut, by which to appreciate the scruffy and stony Andean range, the wild country between pastures and hamlets.

People ask why someone would ever want to run for 9 hours, or 15, or 30. There is most certainly the physical challenge, but nobody runs through all of the daylight hours (and more) to “stay in shape.” For me, still very new to ultra running, I would say it’s really just life boiled down. It’s living through joy and elation, anger, sadness, indifference, resignation; dealing with sometimes unbearable physical discomfort; a wandering, calculating, even hostile mind; it is feeling the sun warming your skin in the freezing cold; it’s also feeling the sun scorching down when all you want to do is stop and lie in a cold stream; it is loving those around you; respecting their work and deeply understanding their struggle as a human being; it’s feeling invincibly strong one moment, utterly broken a few hours later; it is feeling the earth and rocks under your feet, watching in slow motion as clouds gather to strike the jagged peaks; it’s being so sure you’re in the right place only to notice you are utterly lost, and alone.