"Every journey begins with a single step." - This old adage recurs in my mind lately as the date of my my first 100 mile running race approaches in June. I tell people about it and often hear things like, "100 miles? Heck, I don't even drive that far!"
Then, after the shock wears off, the curiosity sets in and they ask things like, "How often do you train? Do you actually run the entire time in a race like that? How long would something like this actually take?"
Those are the questions from the people who don't run ultras. Then, amongst ultrarunning friends, this is a baby step, especially among the veteran ultrarunners who do things like run around on a track for 6 days in a row all day long or have run thirty 100 mile races and are training for a 200 mile race. It's all relative and all a matter of perspective. Yet, for me, it's a big thing, something I've built up to after starting to run ultramarathons 2 years ago.
Back to the quote. It's adapted from a saying attributed to Lao Tzu translated into English as, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." However, in the original text it actually refers to "1000 li". A li is an old Chinese unit of measurement which roughly equates to 360 miles. That means it's actually a journey of 360,000 miles. Like I said, it's all relative. Maybe the numbers get more digestible the longer you have been on the journey. The point is, unless you are on the path and have been on it for awhile, any of these distances could seem impossible.
Frankly, I am intimidated by the idea of running 100 miles straight without sleep as it's something I've never done before. In fact, I've only run half that distance in a race type setting in the past. It's completely unknown territory. If all goes well I will complete it in about a day. And, no, there won't be any time to sleep. The cutoff to finish and get a 100 mile belt buckle is 32 hours. Gonna get me one of those!!
Reflecting on when and where my single step towards the 100 mile marker began. Although I ran for fitness sporadically from my university years until my late 30s, I never ran more than 5 miles at a time, but when I crossed over the big 4-0 threshold, I decided it was time to start checking off some items on my bucket list, namely triathlon and marathon. I posted some thoughts about this process in the following blog post back in September 2015 - RUNNING A MARATHON AND BEYOND
Other posts on the journey to 100 miles:
Those last 3 posts link to photo diaries created from my 900 km+ completion of the Bruce Trail last September. The Bruce Trail follows the Niagara Escarpment from Queenston Heights Park on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls and stretches all the way to Tobermory at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula at the Georgian Bay. Tobermory is the jumping off point for the Fathom Five National Marine Park, a haven for lighthouse buffs and scuba divers exploring shipwrecks.
It's hard to sum up what it was like running the entire trail in 4 seasons, but suffice it to say, it gave me a deep appreciation of both the rugged beauty of nature and the human impact on the environment in the province I reside. It also gave me the base mileage to consider running 100 miles. That distance was the next logical step my journey as an ultrarunner.
Ho Ho Ho! It's that time of year again. Today, was the first day of the season that I had to wear a base layer of merino wool while walking my son and our dog to school. And, because I was relatively prepared, it didn't feel as cold as it did last night even though it was 10 degrees (Celcius) colder. The first step of many in getting used to winter and coming around to appreciating it.
Getting back inside, I looked at the Christmas tree my children and I decorated. Every year, I love to sit beside the tree and write or simply lay there looking at it, smelling the quietness of the forest, comforted by the glow of lights and the feeling that comes when I look at ornaments chosen for my children each year since they were born or ones I received long ago from my mom or grandparents.
Yet, this year, my tree has more to impart. You see, I found, the "perfect tree". I had no idea how perfect it was until I had it sitting in the stand, cut the bindings off and let the branches settle for several hours as it expanded to fill the space I imagined and more. I got a really great deal on this tree too, even better.
If you want your tree to take up water, general wisdom would have you cut an inch or so off the base when you get it home, before you put it in the stand. Alas, this tree's trunk was pretty darned big and none of my saws were going to cut it so I had my son trudge over to our neighbor's to procure a saw. I tried to get through using that saw while he laid on top of it, held it down and braced it for me. It was like trying to cut a steak with a dull butter knife. So, back I went to our neighour's explaining my plight and asking if he had a bow saw, the kind that looks like something you'd use to shoot an arrow if it had a blade instead of a string across the bottom. He scratched his head and thought maybe he had something like it in his shed, but he would have to get all dressed up to get it. He told me he'd bring it over to me when he found it. He's a sweetheart and I felt like a big nuisance, but I accepted his offer - my perfect tree was worth the trouble!
Bow saw in hand, again I recruited my son to keep the tree steady and managed to slowly, yet surely cut that 1 inch chunk off the bottom. Victory! My son took the saw back to our neighbour. Then, I remembered I was missing the flat round red grid-like piece that needed to be screwed into the base of the tree to keep it steady in the holder.
Down I went down to the storage room, annoyed that somehow all the pieces hadn't stayed together in storage, wondering exactly how many boxes I'd have to move to find it. I emerged about 10 minutes later, got the drill out of the garage and proceeded to attach that red circle to the base of the tree. A little niggly feeling told me that the line I'd cut wasn't flat, but by then the saw had been returned to my neighbour and I thought, "Ok, I've been through enough. The saw is back at the neighbors and if necessary, I can simply adjust the tree stand to make the tree sit straight in it."
I decided that after all the hassle I had finding the tree, enlisting help at the store to squeeze it into my car, getting needles and tree sap everywhere, asking my daughter to help me get it out of the car and carry it inside, needles still falling everywhere, having my son sweep them up, making more of a mess with sawdust and more needles, sweeping them up, asking the neighbor for a saw that wasn't right, having him go out in the cold to his shed to get me the right one, cutting that 1" off the tree, hunting for the red base, attaching it, getting my daughter to help me stand it up, fastening it in the stand - I HAD HAD ENOUGH! That tree was going up, up, up!
Et Voila! I could see the tip of it was slanted before I took the twine off of the branches. I hoped that maybe it was just the tip and that somehow I could straighten it out by giving it a nudge. The twine came off. The tree opened. It was definitely leaning to one side. It was a big beautiful tree and it was leaning to one side. It was perfect. It deserved to make one last stand in all it's glory before being put out at the curb in January and I FAILED MY CHRISTMAS TREE.
Last night, the kids and I decorated the tree, sipping peppermint hot chocolate, munching on homemade ginger snaps, listening to Christmas music and reminiscing about each ornament as we put them up. After my son went to bed, my daughter and I laid on the couch, me looking up at the tree, she looking up how to make origami trees online, making three of them.
This morning I woke up really early, coming downstairs to write by the light of the tree. Looking at it from sitting on the couch, it looks really big and full, substantial if not a little standoffish as it was leaning away from me, but I can't tell from this angle that it's clearly slanted. Still the feeling, I FAILED MY TREE.
Surrounding this feeling, it's not lost on me that I just did some work with my INNER JUDGE yesterday, not understanding the reason certain things happened, criticizing myself for making the decisions I did, making myself wrong, feeling like a BIG LOSER, an EPIC FAILURE, wrong for even trying when things didn't work out, basically crushing a very lovely part of myself in the process.
Then, this morning, after sending my best friend a picture of the leaning tree, discovering she's at the airport waiting to jet off to to Singapore for 5 weeks, a trip booked over a month ago, not realizing I didn't know she was going anywhere. Surprise. Shock. Feeling like maybe she doesn't consider me the close friend I consider her to be. Realizing, I don't know what's she's up to. Wondering why she didnt tell me. It wasn't as if we haven't been in touch, even though we live a couple time zones apart. She just didn't remember if she told me. She not understanding why I couldn't just be happy for her and why I had the reaction I did. Why? Why did I feel this pain in my stomach? Why did I feel dejected? Sad? Out of touch? Completely unaware? Out of the loop? Going through text messages, seeing I had been in touch, had been asking her what was going on with her, her replying "Same ole, same ole." Why does this hurt like it does? This feels a lot like FAILING MY TREE. What the heck?!
What's the common theme? The INNER JUDGE loves to be in control and to do things properly. It's not ok with having things less than perfect. It feels deeply INADEQUATE when it's faced with NOT KNOWING. The INNER JUDGE would have me crawl into a hole, feeling like I have no real friends and can't even put up a beautiful tree right.
So, this is where the work gets real. We can become aware of aspects of ourself that are self-abusive. Then, when things start to hurt, maybe instead of blaming ourselves and retreating, we can stand with curiousity and compassion, asking what's really going on and what the part that's hurting needs to feel better.
My PERFECT LEANING TREE will be a reminder this Christmas to not only have compassion and goodwill towards others, but to try and direct some of the Christmas spirit towards myself. HO, HO, HO indeed.
I'd love to know what people think about this issue. Got any "leaning trees" of your own?
My photo journal of finishing the Sydenham section of the Bruce Trail. I ran this section at the beginning of August, 2016.
There you are humming along, getting things done, making solid progress towards your destination and whammo! FULL STOP. It seems like there is simply no way to continue or at least not in the direction you were headed. Obstacles, redirects and unexpected events are simply part of life. What to do when you stall out, hit the wall or otherwise lose momentum and have no clue how to get going again?
Some things to try:
Hope you try some of these suggestions the next time you hit a wall. Do you have other tips that work well for you? Please feel free to share them below.
"I think it's important that we see awakening as the peace and stillness with the fire of evolution." ~ Thomas Hübl
Please note, this post is a follow-up to blog entry, ""Running a Marathon and Beyond" just below. You may wish to read that entry first for background info.
I managed to get my training in, including a 2 week taper before September 12 came around. I went up to Haliburton on September 11, excited to be rooming with Barrie running friends, Brenda and Kathleen, and new friends we made at Dirty Girls.
At the pre-race dinner, veteran ultrarunner, Ron Gehl collected a thousand mile buckle for completing ten 100 mile races at Haliburton with everybody rising to give him a standing ovation. Ron had saved me at Limberlost when I started feeling really zapped and unable to take in another sickly sweet gel, he convinced me to eat half of his granola bar or things would get worse for me. He was right. After getting it down, I started to feel better and managed to keep my stomach on an even keel for the rest of the race.
That night, I tossed and turned while having some bizarre dreams that had me traveling all over the place. I didn't even hear when Brenda got up at 3:00 a.m. and although I set my alarm to wake up at 4:30, got up at 3:45, eager to eat and get myself organized for the 6:00 a.m. start in the dark. I vowed to start off slow and keep it slow and steady like a turtle for the entire 50 miles, very much aware of the bonk I experienced at Limberlost and that I had another 24 km farther to run.
As we started, the glow of all the headlamps almost made the road visible without one. It was a cold 8 degrees C outside, but I knew I would warm up quickly and could push down my arm sleeves when I did. The road was so peaceful and quiet and as we entered the forest trails, the morning light just barely illuminated the lake we were to run around counter clockwise on the way out. I was really enjoying the magic and mystery of the forest, it's soft floor and treed views peeking out to the lake. I took my time. I power hiked the hills and knew I had many hours ahead of me so I'd better conserve my energy.
Unlike my previous races this summer, I wasn't drenched in sweat right off the top so I could space out the time between taking electrolytes. I was on a regular schedule fueling with gels starting at 45 mins in and alternating with food every half hour. At the aid stations, I ate whatever I felt my body wanted - bananas, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, boiled potatoes with salt and even tried mint oreo cookies. My stomach was able to handle all of it just fine.
I got to the 40 k turnaround feeling pretty darned good around noon, thinking I had a good chance of finishing around 6 pm, in time for the 50 mile awards presentation and post-race dinner. At the aid station, I went into my drop bag to fetch some Traumeel and put it on areas that could potentially cause me trouble as the race progressed, namely my tail bone and hips. I also mixed up a water bottle of VEGA energizer, knowing it contained anti-inflammatories like Devil's Claw and could potentially help ward off the aching that inevitably occurred after a certain number of kms in every race. I took my huge pack of gels and a power bar so that I could continue to fuel regularly independent of aid stations if needed. I was optimistic and set off feeling decent for another 10 km when I arrived at aid station #6. I had done most of the first half of this race running solo for long stretches so I secretly hoped I'd find somebody to run with for a few hours when things weren't going as well.
It was after that aid station and around 60 km when things started to go south as my GPS watch battery died even though it was supposed to have lasted for 15 hours on the new settings I had made a couple days before. I thought, "Oh well, it's not going to be as easy to continue with my fuel and salt schedule without my watch, but I will try to do it by feel and make sure I eat at every aid station."
At 9.5 hours in, when I'd run farther than I ever had before, my mind started to involuntarily dredge my subconscious for every depressing thing I'd ever experienced in my life and a cascade of feelings overwhelmed me to the point where I felt I could lie down on the side of the trail, curl up in a ball and start wailing. Try as I might, none of the mantras or mental tricks I was trying to get myself out of that headspace was working so I was extremely grateful when Jack Judge caught up with me or I caught up with him and I had somebody to talk to about what I was experiencing.
Jack, an inspiring fellow, was on his 10th attempt to complete the 100 mile race at Haliburton in less than the 30 hours. The year before he finished in 32 and change, but his result was never officially logged because he came in after the cut off.
Jack was able to tell me that this sort of emotional breakdown is a common experience in ultra running, the brain's response to extreme fatigue. Just talking about it made me feel much better. It also didn't hurt that Jack had a monk-like demeanour, being a long-time student and teacher of Zen. Just being around him made me feel more grounded and level-headed.
Soon enough, Ron Gehl entered the fray and his oddball hilarity was just what I needed. He encouraged Jack to tell me a story he shared with him before as he knew it would be long segue that would serve to keep my mind off how I was feeling. Then, Jack proceeded to tell me about a story reported in the mainstream media about the collision of a sailboat with a ship and how it didn't add up. He spoke of how he learned about 16 year old Australian Jessica Watson who was making her attempt to be the world's youngest circumnavigator. That story lasted at least 2 hours with many interjections by Ron to make me laugh as I complained about this or that.
At a certain point, I started feeling really nauseous, like I was going to throw up. Ron then mentioned he had something to share with me, but that I must never tell anybody what it was or I would let his secret out and he wouldn't have the same competitive edge anymore. He reached into his bag and pulled out a fistful of a food I would never imagine I could stomach at that point. The thought of it was revolting actually, but because he got me through Limberlost when I was at a low point, I trusted him and his many years of ultra running experience and forced it down.
Five minutes after I ate the stuff, I started to feel like I was coming back to life and my stomach settled. I was amazed. I marvelled at how I could feel so much better after feeling so bad and Ron warned me that I would probably experience more lows as the race went on and that this too was natural. He was right. I got light-headed and asked him why and he said it was because I was getting to the max of all that I could handle, but that I should keep eating, drinking and taking salt. Also, under no circumstances should I try to delay veering off the trail to relieve myself if my body was sending the signals. I found out that when I went as soon as I felt I had to go, I saved a bunch of mental energy I needed to finish the race and would feel stronger physically immediately after.
As somebody who loves the taste of coffee and tea, but has a hard time with caffeine, I find that ultra races are the only time I can consume caffeinated gels or drinks without going absolutely bonkers. So, as I got closer to the finish and started eating more protein-rich food, I also made sure I was drinking Coke at every aid station. I had stopped eating gels a couple hours before, but made myself take a blackberry Roctane GU approximately 45 minutes before I got to the finish. I also waited at the last aid station while one of the volunteers went inside their trailer to get me a fresh cup of soup as I figured I needed the liquids while Ron and Jack kept on running.
Soon enough, I caught up to Jack and started telling him about how Derrick recommended I go for a swim in the lake near Aid Station 2 after the race so that my muscles could start to recover. When I realized it was getting dark and that my core temperature was dropping, I knew I wouldn't be able to do the one thing I felt would really help me. Then, I started balling full-out and lamenting this, repeating over and over again how I couldn't do what I needed to do to feel better! One of the race crew riding by on a mountain bike stopped to make sure he didn't need to pull me from the race a couple miles short of the finish. There was no way in hell I was going to stop so I put my chin up, said I was fine and kept on running.
I kept my pace and soon Jack was behind me a good distance as he had to continue after I crossed the finish to go back out and do it all over again. Not long after I passed Ron and kept chugging along. No stopping me now. Finish or die.
I was so happy when I saw the finish line. When I crossed it, I gave Brenda a big hug and started sobbing for real. So very glad it was over. I paused to receive my medal and then Brenda supported me while I staggered back to the cabin.
When I got in, Kathleen was there and gave me another big congratulatory hug and the two of them took really good care of me ensuring I got my protein drink in as soon as possible and made it to the shower to get clean and warm up. I stood, well, crouched under the water for about 20 min as I shivered away. The post-race lake dip would definitely have been the wrong move.
When I got out, I was still shaking uncontrollably so Brenda and Kathleen made sure I got into bed and layered me with sleeping bags. Kathleen, having medical training, checked to make sure I wasn't going into shock from dehydration, and assessed I needed to get some sugar into me as soon as possible as my blood sugar was crashing. I sat up as best I could while she spoon fed me her home-made berry crumble. Soon, I wasn't shaking near as much. However, a little while after, I started shaking again. Kathleen knew I needed protein to help stabilize my blood sugar and keep it from dipping again so Brenda cut up the chicken I got from my post-race meal. I also recalled that my Dad, who is diabetic, drinks orange juice to quickly boost his blood sugar when he goes low and luckily had a juice box with me so I downed that and then gnawed down a couple chunks of chicken. About 5 minutes later, I stopped shaking and felt like I was finally recovering.
About 20 minutes after that, I had enough energy to get up and dress properly so I could tidy up all my gear. I had next to no appetite so I my dinner went into the fridge. Brenda checked to see if my drop boxes were back from the aid stations as I wanted to start taking a homeopathic formula I take to help me when I'm hurting after an extreme workout or have injured myself. First time, it wasn't there so I just held tight and drank my chamomile tea. The second time she went to check, one box was back. Luckily, it was the one I needed, with the homeopathic tincture and traumeel. I had everything I needed to make myself feel better including two really awesome friends who bent over backwards to help me through.
I was wired after taking in all the sugar and caffeine I had during my race so when Kathleen and Brenda called it a night early, I finally had enough energy to get up and look for my final drop box. I found out from volunteer Gord Englund that there were a bunch of people gathered by a campfire beside the finish line if I wanted to go and hang out there. I was certainly in no shape to go to sleep nor did I have the focus to read so I went inside, layered up and then went out to the campfire. Almost as soon as I got there, somebody offered me chips and then wine while we shared stories from our race. The fire was warm and I was content. I marvelled at all the 100 mile racers who were still out there running and those who had ran incredible races in mind-boggling times.
They say Haliburton is a really special race in the ultra community and now speaking from experience, I whole-heartedly agree. The course is spectacular. The volunteers are absolutely amazing. It's well-organized. Most of all, it has a unique atmosphere and feeling of community. Runners push themselves to their limits and beyond while others stay up all night to support them, doing everything they can to help them succeed. And, when all's said and done, you can go and chill by the campfire, put your feet up and relish the entire experience with a bunch of awesome people.
I haven't posted on here since January, about the same time I decided it was finally time to cross running a marathon off my bucket list!
I developed a passion for trail running about 3.5 years ago, after figuring out that running any farther than 30 km on the road really made me feel miserable and the trails were much gentler on my body. So, I started running year round, discovering the joys of winter and night running, chasing my crazy and adventurous running pals around the forest, gradually getting to the point where running for 4 hours at a time was actually no big deal.
With the idea of working up to a trail marathon, I ran the 25 km Pick your Poison trail race in 2013 at Horseshoe Valley, scrambling up and down ski hills and then....I sold my house and embarked on the EPIC ROAD TRIP = the end of 4 hour weekend runs with my pals.
I managed to get in some really nice runs in Arizona and California, but the heat and lack of company zapped my enthusiasm to run any longer than an hour or two.
There, I would find a nice little 6 km loop with some significant climbs in and out of the ravine where I would do long runs. It is beautiful through the seasons and especially gorgeous in winter.
So, as mentioned, in January of this year, I decided to cross marathon off my bucket list, but because marathon is not a common distance on the trail, I set my sights on the 50 Km Seaton Soaker Trail Race in Pickering, Ontario on May 9, 2015.
For those living in South Central Ontario, you will probably recall that last winter was pretty damned cold and there was a ton of snow, yet I was determined. I ran around and around that ravine loop for 6 hours at a time in -40 degree C temperatures with the wind. When the snow started to melt and the meltwater refroze, I strapped on my kahtoolas and ran on the ice. During that time, the totally runnable hill leading down into the ravine turned into an icy frozen slide reminiscent of a bobsled track. I am proud to say I stuck to my training plan no matter what it was like outside.
All through the winter and into the spring, I ran solo soaking in the beauty of nature, still missing my trail buddies. I was really glad when I heard there would be a group training run on the Seaton course a week before the race, so I could run with other people again. Even more happy to reconnect with a few of my old trail pals on race day!
Seaton went pretty well. It took me almost 7 grueling hours to finish, yet much to my surprise, I somehow managed to get first place in my age group! Now, I was finally able to check marathon off my bucket list knowing I'd even surpassed that distance by an additional 8 km. And, yes, folks, on the left was one of the many gnarly hills I power hiked up, definitely not the same deal as running the smooth flat asphalt of a road marathon.
I had done it, and I was really happy to have achieved my goal. Yet, the ultra running community is a special one. Once I did that race, I was eager to keep going and continue to be a part of it all. Inspired by my good friend Kelly Anne Wald, whom I reconnected with at Seaton, I started thinking maybe it would even be possible for me to run farther than 50 km on the trails.
I figured that having a coach who could help get me to running 50 miles this year without injury would be smart. I'd heard a lot of great things about Derek Spafford of Spafford Health and Adventure from Kelly who had become a serious ultra runner. So, when I decided to do the 56 km distance at The Limberlost Challenge in July, I signed up with him with the idea it would be a step towards my goal race of 50 miles at the Haliburton Forest Ultra.
It was really awesome being able to ask Derrick all of my crazy questions about ultra running, receiving a weekly training schedule and getting regular feedback on my progress. I felt ready, yet nervous about Limberlost as I'd heard it was a tough and long course to complete. At the end of the day, what I heard proved to be true.
With four, 14 km+ loops head of me, I went out the gate pretty quick clocking my first loop in under 2 hours and feeling like maybe I could keep it up to finish in around 8 hours. Yet, the hills, soggy ground, mud and constant water crossings really sucked the energy out of my body. That, plus it was sweltering hot and humid, over 30 degrees C. On the final loop, the main thing that kept me going was knowing my kids would be waiting for me at the finish line. We had camped over at Limberlost the night before and they were volunteering as race crew and swimming while I slogged it out on the trail. Sure enough, they were there when I crossed the line. I was thrilled to see them and even more thrilled to be DONE!
Ultra running is like childbirth in that you quickly forget the pain and effort involved and only focus on it's rewards. So, soon after running Limberlost, I was asking Derrick what he thought about my running the 6 hour race at Dirty Girls. As it was only 2 weeks after Limberlost, I didn't have much time to recover so he wasn't thrilled about it. I'd heard so many good things about this race, including great atmosphere, a beautiful course, awesome swag and food. I persisted in convincing him I would take it easy and run it as a training run for my goal race.
It was another blistering hot and humid day and true to my word, I took it easy, squeezing in 40 km before the 6 hour mark.
Then, of course, I knew that the Creemore Vertical Challenge, the next race in the Ontario Ultra Series was coming up in another 2 weeks so once again I asked Derrick for his thoughts on my doing the 50k, fully expecting him to say "NO" because that would mean squeezing 3 races into 6 weeks. I was surprised when he said that as long as I could run it as a training run, it would be good preparation for Haliburton because of its long steep hills.
So, I signed up and on yet another hot and humid summer day, ran 50 k on long dirt roads and gnarly trails with my friend Liisa, whom I met and ran with the last loop and half of Limberlost. We crossed the finish line together 10 mins faster than my time at Seaton so I was pretty happy. After the race, I took full advantage of the opportunity to soak my legs in the river while replenishing my carbs with a nice cold glass of Creemore Springs.
I guess I must have sat in that cold river a little too long because a few days after I came down with the flu and spent a few days in bed. However, on the upside, Derrick mentioned that if I was going to get sick, this was a good time because I could use the time to recover from the past 3 races before completing my training for Haliburton. Looking back on it, he was right, but one never feels like there's a good time to get sick when they are in the throws of it. Then again, I was tired and I needed downtime so I was glad I had a bit of a forced break from training.
I believe we can rise to our personal and societal challenges by embracing the spirit of adventure and the enduring wisdom of nature.