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!