Tag Archives: ultrarunning

A change is as good as a…

This will be a round-up of sorts. Let’s start with a race report, before moving on to my rank among the most heinous of Luddites.

I did my last race of the 2018 season at the Bromont Ultra 50 miler on 7 October. A season of injuries and cross training meant that since July I’d been checking in daily with my coach Laura Perry to adjust workouts and manage whatever pain I was feeling. We did a good job at mitigating injury so that I could race, but there is an underlying stress to feeling like you’re perpetually on the brink of injury (or just injured).

Lining up at Bromont was a relief. I put in a solid (injury free) training block for it, so I felt zero pressure. There’s a mantra: “the work is done, now time to have fun,” which is true, but sometimes hard not to put pressure on yourself when you have put in all that work. I think I was just feeling a deep relief that I had arrived injury free, and would be able to have a mental rest really soon.

I awoke in the darkness of my motel room at 2:30am. I packed up, stuck my head outside, and was greeted by thick fog, misty rain, and about 5C. The gun went off at 3:30am and immediately I could see that I shouldn’t be in the front group. But I gave it a shot anyway, just to see how long I could/should stay up there. It was an infernal pace. And it didn’t stop when we hit the base of the ski hill. We were hammering the muddy single track and I was holding on for dear life through the thick fog. The only thing I could see around me was the ground and the white balls of light of the 6 guys in the group. In any event, the answer to my question was 4.92km. That’s when I said “fuck it,” pulled out my poles, and watched the white orbs disappear very quickly into the inky night.

I was caught from behind by three guys with whom I ran for some 10-15k. Without them, I would have gotten lost. At times you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you for the fog. The one anglophone in the bunch gave us all a tip, to hold our headlamps down low so they actually lit our path instead of blinding us (same concept as foglights on a car). That guy turned out to be Brian Rusieki. If you don’t know who that is, look him up. He’s an ultra running legend. And he showed me that as he turned the screw on the long flat logging roads around the 20k mark. Never saw him again. One thing he said while we were scrambling up some steep rocks was “you Canadians start too fast; most of those guys won’t last.”

I finally found a great pace, and picked up two running buddies, Rich Paddy (an ironman triathlete doing is first 50 miler) and another Brian who was the first casualty of that front group (or, I guess, the second, as I took the honours). The three of us ran and chatted for probably 30k. They would get ahead of me on the runnable roads and double track, and I would set the pace on the steep single track, up and down.

By this point it had cleared: perfect temperature, great trail conditions (if a bit muddy at times – but what’s a trail race without some mud!) While I wasn’t able to eat as much as I had at Black Spur, I was still eating regularly and enough, and feeling pretty good at the 60k mark. So I started to push the pace, and was able to pull away from both my companions on a descent (where I also fell and smashed my knee). I caught two more casualties of the front group, and subsequently got passed by one of them.

Out in the clearing I looked at my watch. I was calculating a 20k acceleration, and a particularly fast final 5k. So I was confused when I saw the finishing arch and my watch only said 76.5k. I finished a bit stronger than I should have, with a somewhat confused smile on my face. Turns out my watch was a little off, and the course was a little shorter than 80k. Something like 78.5k.

I finished in 9:25, 35min faster than my personal goal and good for 8th overall in a pretty stacked field, where Brian Rusieki beat me by only 30 minutes, and the former course record was broken by the top 3. Able to push the whole time, but also be quite comfortable, I think it was a great and rather epic-feeling end to the season. I drove back to the motel, napped for 3 hours, and then packed up to drive the last 3 hours back to Ottawa to sleep in my own bed.

As always, a huge shout out to the race organizers, the town of Bromont, all the volunteers, and to everyone who toughed it out in the mud and rain and fog and cold. A special congrats to Rich for such a strong showing in his first 50 miler ever – top 10, DAMN!!

***

Right after I got home, my new mountain bike arrived – uber excited!!!! I have been riding a lot, resting those running muscles and ripping it (but more just ripping myself) up on the mountain bike trails. Around the same time I got my hands on a knock-off GoPro-type action camera.

I had been taking little videos while mountain biking, and learning how to use the camera. Two weekends ago I participated in a 6h team orienteering event with some friends – what a blast!!! And as I keep telling people: running AND thinking at the SAME TIME is pretty hard! Needless to say, while I do know how to use a map and compass, I wasn’t able to take bearings as quickly as Emil and Evan, so while I almost always knew where we were, I spent most of the 6 hours following Emil’s bearings. A fun mix of “braun” AND brains!

There too, I was trying to take some action videos during the event. All this to say, that as I sought to upload all the videos for editing, I accidentally “formatted” the card, thus deleting ALL the (probably sub-par) videos I had taken of friends and myself biking, running with maps through the woods in the rain, and generally having fun outside in the beautiful autumn colours. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to remember those moments like we used to.

 

 

 

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Ultra in the sky: running a high mountain trail race in Peru

It was still dark when my taxi rolled up to the start line of the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca (UTCB), just a 10-minute drive from downtown Huaraz, Peru. Runners and race volunteers moved about to the light of headlamp beams in the cold morning, and at 6:30am, just as the sun rose above the ridgeline in the distance, the gun went, and we were off – the start of a 50km day in the mountains. Locals watched from their adobe homes in the dusty streets as runners from all around the world started up toward Lake Churup at 4576m, the course’s first big climb.

Huaraz, nestled in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca among some of South America’s highest peaks, is a world class destination for trekkers, alpine climbers, and trail runners alike. It’s also the backdrop for the UTCB. With distances of 10k, 25km, and 50km, as well as a vertical kilometer race, the event is part of the annual Festival del Andinismo (a mountain sports and film festival).

I ran right near the front for the first 2 kilometers, but quickly realized I was going too fast, and brought the pace down to a comfortable rhythm, something to settle into for the better part of the next seven and a half hours. I was able to stay amongst the top 10 up to the second aid station where the trail really kicked up. It’s an unrelenting (at over 4000m), and just when you think it couldn’t get any more brutal, it does. A long line of runners waited to grab cables installed on the side of the cliff that we reached at km 12, to drag ourselves up the almost shear face. Getting to the lake provided only very temporary relief, and I wasted no time in starting back down the treacherous trail to a road, and aid station 4 at km 18. Aid stations were well stocked with water, Gatorade, Coke, fruit, and chewy candies, though I was only filling up on water and electrolytes (I’ve got a finicky stomach).UTCB1

UTCB2From aid station 4 it’s a few kilometers of single track by a stream and a few hundred meters of well marked bushwhacking to the aid station at km 21. The next 10km or so was a set of switchbacks on a rough gravel road. Tired and feeling the altitude, I didn’t have the legs to run this whole section. Instead, it was a fits and starts sort of affair. The course continues through a high alpine meadow, up an impossibly steep glacial moraine to the race’s last high point at over 4500m. I arrived at km 34, passed over the dyke, took in the jaw dropping views of a turquoise lake and a massive, blinding white glacier tumbling down a mountainside against an emerald sky. I also watched three of the four runners who had passed me on the first descent start making their way down to the finish. That motivated me. I took two photos on my phone, buckled down, and started the chase!

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UTCB7

For safety reasons, all runners must carry a headlamp, thermal blanket, jacket, food, whistle, and base layer – if you you’re missing any of them, you’re disqualified, no exceptions. I had to wait five minutes at the check point while they went through my gear. Getting back on the road to the descent was a mental battle. I had been running, hiking, and scrambling for the last 5.5 hours, my legs were pretty beat up, and the sun was only getting stronger.

Five kilometers on the dirt road, followed by five of some to event’s steepest and most technical descending. Actually running this section required a ton of concentration, and while I certainly didn’t bomb it, I was able to run carefully to the final aid station at km 45, where the road gets steep and you’ve got to go fast. And it hurts even more. I finished strong and smiling, and within 5 minutes of 10th place male.

Having trained at altitude for some months, I was able to enjoy the race and its awe-inspiring alpine scenery. Everyone I met was friendly and supportive, as is the norm in the ultra running scene. As I started my long journey back to Cusco via Lima, I had lots of time to reflect. It’s actually hard form me to envision a better event. Superb race organization, excellent course markings, well stocked aid stations… Combine that with great people, good race preparation and a dose of good luck and weather, and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable experience. I sure hope I’ll be back!

Privilege and mountain running

There is a geometric quality to my thoughts. Always. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent all this time on edges, on the domes and cones of these mountains, climbing the squared steps of ruins, arching with rhythmic feet the soft perimeters of the unimaginable V that rises from each microscopic river into the rocks and sky. I always come back to the privilege of having the time to appreciate.

I start in the dark, the pink sun buried somewhere to the east, in black silhouettes. You get the feeling you’re being watched. A massive presence, full of earth and rock and snow and ice waits for the day to crack its eyelids, to wake slowly, to explode and give light to a landscape that makes Machu Picchu or Giza look, frankly, mundane.

First, as I move smoothly along the approach road to the campground, there is no one. Just tents, sleeping behind rocks and in between grazing packhorses and mules in the half-darkness. But lights begin to flicker on as I reach the trail. This is where tour groups sleep just before setting out on a four or five day trek. People appear at their tent doors like ghosts, brushing their teeth and watching me run by with groggy confusion.

 

The arrieros have been up since before dark in their dirty boots and crusting layers of wool. I watch them push packs onto waiting mules, pulling hard on the ropes to tie their bundles off – it will be hours of rough terrain and probably rain before they set up camp in advance of the trekkers. These men work ten or twelve days at a time, waking at 3am to tie loads, to make breakfast and start breaking camp, and they go until well after dark, cleaning and readying for the next day. They make enough to support their families in adobe, dirt floor houses. Some even have stone walls. But they only spend three days at home before heading back to the mountain. The mountain is their money, their food, it is their livelihood, towering above the valley a white and icy mess of jagged lines and 10,000 year old ice covered in last night’s snowfall.

I’ve slowed my pace, distracted as I think about the fully loaded packhorses and the men who spend their lives amongst these rocks, 4 kilometers in the sky. “Come on Liam, focus! It’s only been 3km and you’ve got nearly 50km to go!” I get back to my feet, finding a rhythm as they turn over like they have so many millions of times. I get beyond camp to a buttress where a stream flows out and the first bit of rugged singletrack starts up toward the pass. I’ve only been running for a half hour, and I estimate I’ve got another 7.5 before my proposed mid-afternoon arrival at the dam below Machu Picchu. I feel alive with the cold morning air and the rising mist, I feel the weight of three litres of water and the day’s food, a change of shorts and t-shirt for the long, hot bus ride back home. But there’s a long way to go before that.

The last few months have been busy at work, and I don’t get very many weekends off, as I’m visiting partner communities. I had been training hard though, for a race in Puno, the Ultra Titicaca Trail 60k. Only weeks out, the race was cancelled. So I had great fitness and a rare free weekend. My natural reaction was of wanting to take advantage of this to spend time in the mountains. I had had the idea of running the Salkantay route (a fairly popular 4-5 day mountain trek) in a day, so this would be a great test of my fitness and a beautiful day moving on my own power from high mountain pass to steamy jungle. Because in the end there are really only two reasons why I trail run: it makes my body and mind feel great, and it allows me to appreciate the beauty of forests, mountains, streams, lakes, meadows, rocks, and all the animals and plants that inhabit them. And – and I’ve thought this many times before – it occurs to me that this enjoying nature is a privilege and a luxury of people who can take days for themselves…a truly exclusive group.

I’ve left the camp behind me in the clearing mist where the tourists will have gotten dressed and stumbled to the breakfast tent. I’m holding my trekking poles by my side as I cruise the last rolling – if quite technical – singletrack before the real climbing starts. The river roars at the bottom of a steep embankment to my right (still swollen from the remnants of the rainy season), and in front of me a towering, steaming white Goliath, reaching its dry and snowy body to the sky, steep and impossible. Now the trail kicks up, gets rocky, and gets real. I’m dragging myself up the switchbacks (so tight they’re almost on top of each other) on the side of a rugged moraine. I’m breathing hard, but steady. I’ve already had my first bite of sandwich (not eating or hydrating on a solo outing like this is suicide) and I’m feeling strong. Out of the corner of my eye, something moves. I turn to the right to see a man floating down the trail on the other side of the gulch, a trail far more technical than the one I’m on. The trail blazes through a God size mound of scree that a glacier dumped in the middle of the valley some number of thousands of years ago. From my vantage point, the man seems to be wearing jeans, a jacket, and has a book bag slung on his back. He looks up, seems to see me, and then returns to the shoe-cutting stones. This kind of ease on this kind of trail is mind blowing, something you only see from professional trail runners. But then again, I think as I keep my feet moving, turning over despite the lack of oxygen and every muscle that screams to slow down – then again, this man is made of this mountain. This is not his weekend adventure but his daily commute – he belongs to the mountain. He disappears quickly into the gulch and I continue up past a shear cliff face on my left, the Apu Salkantay on my right, up toward the pass.

It occurs to me as I pause on a precipitous ledge to catch my break and grab an apple from my vest that my appreciation for these landscapes appears pure, but is really only aesthetic. It is like looking at a painting without knowing it’s history or context, admiring a naked body without knowing the human inside it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, only that there are whole dimensions missing from that appreciation. It is also a privileged appreciation. So many of us try to connect with our surroundings, nature, the trail, the mountain, the river, and we value that. It is laudable, especially in a world that seems to be both disconnected from and violent toward those natural spaces. But I can’t imagine the tiny Andean woman in her pollera (traditional skirt) pulling potatoes from the cold ground before sunrise, admiring the aesthetic beauty of the Salkantay valley.

Above 4500m my body REALLY resists running. But I will it to run here on a few hundred meters of flat pampa before the final ascent to the pass. Every meter of running saves time. I splash through puddles, muddy depressions on the grassy oasis. As I make the final push to the pass – even scrambling in a few sections – at 4650m I look back to see a massive cloud just behind me. It’s moving fast enough that I have no time to get my camera out to snap a photo of the beautiful mountain. Instead, I make it to the pass, a cemetery of rocks and cairns standing immobile in a cloud so dense I can only see about 20 meters ahead of me. There isn’t much point in staying up here: I can’t see anything, its cold, and I’m making good time, so I might as well keep the rhythm.

Easier said than done. After just over 1.5h of slow and steady progression up to the pass, I’d wanted to scream down the other side. But in the thick fog and the light rain, the steep rocky trail is technical. I remember I’m alone. “Take it easy Liam.” As the rain starts around 11k, (3.5k after the pass) I come across my first hikers with their neon rain covers and their ponchos. As I cruise easily through the rock garden past them, I say hi. I like to imagine what people think: “WTF!” Later I would actually hear “that guy has got to be crazy!” They were starting their second day of trekking.

The edge of cold, the bite in the air starts to abate as I get down to 4000m and again have to will myself (this time more easily) to run across a rainy and muddy field to where the trail really turns down toward the jungle. Another camp, more trekkers, some dogs, and those arrieros again, yelling at their mules and dragging them down the muddied slopes with their full load. Chewing coca, without any rain gear, they watch me go by and give me a gruff “Buenos dias.” Another day at the office, this time in the rain.

The trail down to Chaullay is steep and fairly wide. It’s raining steadily now, and I’m just trying to make good time. I always hit a low point on long runs, and it starts here, around 20k. My stomach starts to feel upset, I’m not eating enough, I take a wrong turn and have to squelch my way back through ankle-deep mud to the village to ask directions. “Of course, it’s down the valley.”

I had been told that some of the trail to Llaqtapata was washed out by landslides so I take the road. By this point, I’m fully out of the alpine, it’s steamy, the visibility is pretty good, and it’s time to take off my jacket. I walk for 5 minutes to eat and take on fluid and then I’m feeling great again. The next 10k I’m ticking off the monotonous road (narrow, dirt) kilometers quickly. It’s really easy going and my legs feel great. Van loads of trekkers drive by me, sometimes hollering encouragement out the window, other times just staring in bewilderment. At one point I am condescendingly told to wait by a man on horseback. I’m annoyed, but then I see the rocks falling from above, flying down the mountain to strike the road – remnants of a landslide. When you do go, when you make a dash for it you just hope it’s not the moment another rock decides to fall, because that would be it. Through a few small rivers whose cold water is like heaven on the hot and blistering feet. I stop to fill up my water and take off the last of my layers. It is a hot summer run now and I’ve arrived at Llaqtapata where the road splits. Only 12k to go. Here, men wait, drinking Coke, washing their cars, aimlessly waiting for tired trekkers to cave and get a ride. They’re working. I’m playing.

At Llaqtapata I head up, and thus begins my second low point, this one more of an angry one. I feel great physically, I’m moving well, but I expected the climb to be two or three kilometers max. So when it’s stair-worthy steep for four kilometers I start to get frustrated. I’ve slowed down, more out of frustration than fatigue, and I just want to be on the final descent to Hidroelectrica. Each turn I think it’s going to be the top. It’s not. The climb is an excruciating seven kilometers before it finally turns down. Just before, I stop at a campesino’s house (who sells soft drinks and cookies to hikers on this Inka road in the middle of the jungle). I sit down for one minute to drink my Pepsi (fluid, sugar, salt – it’s all you need!) before continuing on up. A man comes out with his adorable and precocious daughters and we chat briefly. People like me are how they make their living in this lush green canyon in the rocks.

This whole time I’ve been frustrated, yelling at the chickens that cross my path, I’ve been ignoring this vast valley of lush green forest, topped with shear cliffs and spiky mountains. Chatting with the little girls and confirming I’m not lost both brighten me up. I’m close and I’ve only been running for 6.5h.

“I’m going to scream down this last descent and I’ll be in under 7h, wow!” Nope. Nothing of the sort. The 5k descent is extremely steep, and unthinkably muddy. But not dirty mud. More clay, really slippery clay. It is like a skating rink. I have to hobble down with my hiking poles. I fall once, and consider it a miracle that I don’t fall a lot more. Once I finally roll into the parking lot, still feeling great, it’s around 1pm. I’ve been on the trail for 7.5h, moving for 7h 18mins. The sun is shining, the mountains are gazing down at the rushing and muddy Urubamba river.

I sneak between the trees, strip down, and sooth myself in the frigid waters. I just can’t stop thinking how this is a privilege. It is a privilege to do, to experience, to be, to move, and to appreciate.

I wash, change, sit in the sun by the river before sauntering over to the railroad track to buy some overpriced food. I eat while I wait for the train to come in, full of Machu Picchu goers. The people who said I was crazy in the last kilometer of muddy descent arrive. We exchange words. I get in a car and sleep and eat my way to Urubamba where friends wait with a warm welcome, a barbecue, stories of their day of rock climbing. Later, we pile seven people into a car for the dark drive back to Cusco.

The arrieros will have long gone to bed in their wet clothes. They’ll be waking up in a few hours while I rest my legs. They’ll be tying bags as I sleep. They’ll be getting on the trail, moving through rocks and canyons as I’m back in my bed, dreaming of the mountains.

 

 

Run

I

Yeah, that’s what most people say: why? I get it: it’s painful, uncomfortable, boring, etc. But don’t get me wrong, I loathe a 3k jaunt around suburbia as much as the next couch potato! The only difference I can see between that and a treadmill (and I sure hate treadmills!) is that you’ve got the weather instead of your favourite tv show. So, no. I don’t run as a means to an end.

I run because it’s the most stripped down embodiment of human capacity. That, and it gets me outside, and into a wilderness so disconnected from our urban realities that it’s almost unrecognizable sometimes. Any other outdoor endeavour (as rad as it may be) requires a fairly substantial amount of technology, resources, and gear.

Running is one of a small handful of sports that doesn’t discriminate between black and white, rich and poor, hot and cold, high mountain and steamy jungle. We can run everywhere. And we do. Kenyans and Ethiopians stormed the competitive marathon scene in the late 80s – but their running was only new to the West – they’d been at it forever. Buddhist monks in Japan run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days as a meditative practice, the Tarahumara of Mexico’s copper canyons run hundreds of miles at a stretch to communicate, to play, and to simply hang out with friends and family. People still run their prey to exhaustion in the Kalahari desert… the list, I’m sure, goes on.

In 2010 I was in Chile. I was spending a lot of time hiking in the mountains of Southern Patagonia. Covering a lot of distance in a day, I realized if I traveled with less I could go faster, which meant I could also go further. It was liberating to trade my hiking pack for a small backpack and jog off into the never-ending mountains, finding that rhythm that is so natural. I’d return in a few hours, elated, hungry, and full of beautiful sounds and sights. This is when I (not so accidentally) learned about the “ultramarathon” – technically any run longer than the 42.2km marathon. I was intrigued. Here were men and women running distances of 100-200km at once. It seemed bizarre, given how the marathon has been canonized in our culture as the pinnacle of human capability and endurance. But 42.2km is both an arbitrary number, and, as it turns out, a wild underestimation of most humans’ abilities. Watching top ultrarunners is like watching any other mammal at an easy trot – it looks pretty natural! They’re also usually in the forest or on a mountain (rather than a track or road.) So, I was hooked…on the idea.

This past year I’ve put in all sorts of miles: fast, slow, long, short, painful, fun, horrific. The track for speed, the road for tempo, the trails for technique. 50km weeks, 150km weeks, 30 minute runs, 6 hour runs, rain, sun, ski-hill repetitions, 38 degrees, driving rain and wind. The more the miles went by, the more I felt totally natural.

Since this past summer’s training and a handful of ultradistance events, my mindset – my consciousness – as it relates to running and my own capabilities, has shifted hugely.

Like writing, running has become more than a means to an end (getting in your workout). It has become a continuous line, a long view, a lense through which I experience life and landscapes, as well as my own body and consciousness.

II

Since moving to Cusco, a city at 3500m above sea level, running has become a more efficient form of both exploring my surroundings, and staying sane. Living where I do, a mere 10 minute uphill slog from the countryside, I can huff and puff my way through small farm fields, wooded areas, up the spines of towering mountains, through the sculpted rock outcroppings and amongst the innumerable (and practically unacknowledged) ruins that dot everything. Some mornings, as the mist rises to reveal green peaks dusted with snow, I float up the ancient Inca road behind my house, Qapaq ñan. All I can hear is my laboured breathing and the odd barking dog. All I can feel is my aching body being dragged up these stone steps. It’s cold but I’m wearing running shorts, a t-shirt, thin gloves and a handheld water bottle. I arrive at work in the morning having been massaged by my surroundings, psychoanalized by the llamas and the tiny Quechua women who heard them, by the sweeping ridgeline of burnt orange-brown rocks and the creeping green of the rainy season.

I am lucky to have a friend and running partner (a former neighbour) who is both an incredibly strong athlete, and someone who motivates me to get up early to run before work. We’ve done some long running adventures on weekends that brought us over mountain passes, past alpine lakes (and yes, herds of alpacas). We once found ourselves wasted tired after three hours of narrow, steep, and rocky trails that wind and snake the impossible canyons and valleys outside Cusco, in the cold and pouring rain, and three valleys over from where we thought we were. Limping to the nearest road, we piled into a taxi that brought us (at no cost!!) the last 8k or so through a chaotic urban jungle and into Cusco. Sadly, he’ll be leaving with his family for Patagonia at the beginning of February, but it’s been a fun ride!

The altitude means that I go a lot slower than I’m used to, and distances feel roughly double what they are. It’s also pretty hard to go for an “easy” run, but bit by bit, as I soak into the whitewashed adobe houses of the San Blas neighbourhood with its impossibly narrow alleyways, its cobbled streets, my lungs are adjusting. And there are new projects on the horizon!

Now that I’ve done some exploring, I’ll be starting in on another training program with my coach Laura (@lauraperryultra), in preparation for some high altitude ultras over the next year, and some fun personal projects! In the end, it’s all quite natural.