Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Everything is Connected

I like writing blog posts about wonderful races and wild running adventures. Who can blame me? Writing about these experiences allows me to relive running through beautiful, inspiring places and to take pride in my accomplishments. As I know all too well, though, this is only one part of running. Sometimes there is pain, and frustration, and moments when all your positive momentum comes grinding to a halt. I call this "a blog about running and life" - and so, I feel that my posts should reflect the reality that there are always highs and lows in both. 


The last time I ran uninjured, 6 weeks ago.
Pic: Hilary Matheson
6 weeks post Gorge 100k, and I have finally come to terms with the fact that I am injured. I took 2 1/2 weeks completely off running after the race, and have been trying to "ease" back into it since - with persistent pain in my hip/groin. For those who may have read my glowing blog post about Gorge, I mention that hip pain flaring up at the turnaround point. Which means I ran on it for 50k. The irony is not lost on me that the dogged stubbornness and tolerance for pushing through pain that helps so much in ultra running can be your worst enemy when you are dealing with an injury. If I am completely honest with myself, I have not given my body the time it needs to heal, not really; instead, I have been convincing myself that the pain is getting better, that "motion is lotion", and that if I just keep slowly and consistently working away at coming back to running, my injury will heal.

This is not how healing works.

Healing works by listening to your body. By being honest with yourself about what it needs, and giving it that. And by letting go of that incessant drive to propel yourself forward without veering off course: sometimes (and I know this, I really do!), the only way to get to where you want to go is to stop, take stock, and re-route. 


All smiles during Chuckanut 50k. Pic: Glenn Tachiyama
Like most runners, I am goal-driven, and this year I signed up for quite a few races, anticipating a great season after a strong start with the Chuckanut 50k in March and Gorge in April. The main reason I kept stubbornly trying to build my running back up earlier than I should have was because I had registered for the Sun Mountain 50k race, which is this coming weekend. I finally let go of that - and a little bit of the pressure I put on myself lessened. I took a hard look at my race calendar, and distilled it down to what really matters to me, which is the Squamish 50 in August. I let go of everything else. I want to be fit and healthy for that race - and am now, finally, willing to do what it takes for that to happen. 


So, what will it take? I have, according to best guesses from my doctor, physio, and osteopath, iliopsoas muscle strains on both sides, one slightly worse than the other. This injury is seemingly connected in a complex way to the bilateral mastectomy surgery I had 18 months ago, which over time has caused incremental adjustments in my chest muscles and diaphragm, which has resulted in my psoas and hip being constantly pulled. I first felt some hint of these issues in April last year, when I was suddenly plagued with mysterious sciatic/hamstring pain. A week of rehab and rest seemed to do the trick, and I was off and running again - but the internal pulling never went away, and was essentially a ticking time bomb in my body. Eventually, and somewhat unsurprisingly, I threw the whole system completely over the edge by running 100k - and the bomb went off. 

A strain first and foremost requires rest - which I have been telling myself I was doing, but in retrospect of course haven't been diligent enough about. Sure, I have been diligent about doing hip stabilizing and core strengthening exercises, and yoga, and hip flexor stretching, and foam rolling...but rest? Not my strong suit. To be fair to myself, my physio kept telling me that going for short runs wasn't going to make it worse, and that a little pain while healing is to be expected - but this week my doctor finally said the words that I dreaded, but desperately needed to hear: no running. No running for 3-4 weeks. Stay diligent with the other stuff, yes. But do. not. run.


No shortage of trails to power hike around here.
Pic: Tiff Phillips
It seems like such a ridiculous thing to be so upset about. It's only running, after all - and yet I have gone completely through the 5 stages of grief over this injury. It is frankly a relief to finally reach the acceptance stage, and to be able to move forward in a positive way. I can still hike, as long as my hip doesn't stiffen up afterward. So far, so good on that front. I consider power hiking to be my weakness in ultras - I am stronger on runnable courses, and on steep sections that call for power hiking I tend to lose focus and just kind of... walk. So I am now reframing this as an opportunity to practice something that I am not great at. It still gets me onto my beloved trails every day, with the added bonus that I feel I am still working toward something. 

A couple days ago I was hiking up a steep hill in Squamish, battling feelings of frustration, doubt, and figuratively wondering where to go from here (apparently I was still in the depression stage of grief...). At that moment, I literally saw an arrow chalked into the ground in front of me, which was left over from last month's Squamish 50 orientation run. Clearly, the universe felt I needed a really obvious sign to remind me of my main goal (side note: we also clearly could really use some rain). I paused, laughed out loud, wiped a tear away, breathed my thanks, and kept climbing. Onward and upward, carefully and mindfully paying attention - and I will reach those highs again.
Pointing me toward my goal.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Gorge Waterfalls 100k 2016: There and Back Again

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
I find that the most difficult thing about running something like the Gorge Waterfalls 100k is going back to an everyday routine afterward. Something shifts in me when I spend the entire day outside, moving only by the power of my own legs and heart, through beautifully wild places. It is hard to put into words, but this is why I love ultra running: it gives me the gift of stepping outside of the ordinary and challenging my mind and body to do extraordinary things. You might think my smile in this picture was put on for the camera, as it was ~80k into the race - but I am pretty sure I had this huge grin on my face for most of the run. I even commented the next day that my cheeks were sore from smiling so much (little-known ultra running muscle pain). It is true that you never know what you can accomplish until you try - which is partly why I made the seemingly rash decision to run a 100k race on 1 month's notice.

Let me back up a few months.

When my ultra inspiring girlfriends signed up for this race back in October and encouraged me to do the same, I thought they were nuts. I had only run 50k a few times, and had never gone longer. The thought of how amazing this experience could be ate away at me for a while, though, and I finally decided to put my name on the wait list (the race sold out on the day registration opened). I was 129th in line, so never really expected to get in, and just went about my training for the Chuckanut 50k in March. Exactly one month before race day (2 weeks before Chuckanut), I got the shock of my life when I was invited off the wait list. Could I possibly do this? My friends of course (emphatically) said yes - but bear in mind that they are all accomplished ultra runners who have much more experience than I do. I was in the classic situation of my logical head telling me it was crazy, and my wild heart telling me that that is exactly why I should do it. I decided that Brendan would be the voice of reason; he knows me better than anyone and is very rational. Somewhat to my surprise, when I asked him he told me to go for it (amazingly supportive partner? Check.). And so I officially entered the race, deciding to treat it as what Alicia referred to as a "full-day supported adventure run". No pressure; no expectations beyond enjoying myself and revelling in the experience.

Photo: Dave Hurst
8 of us travelled together from Vancouver to Oregon on Friday (5 girls running, + 2 boyfriends and 1 friend who flew from Calgary just to come and cheer us on). We had a pretty chill evening and then before we knew it were waking up at 4:15 to try to shove some breakfast down and get to the start, which was thankfully only 15 minutes from our hotel. The race started at 6, and we arrived at 5:20 - only to find out that the parking lot was full, and we would need to park a mile away and walk back. Not the ideal beginning to the morning! We were definitely feeling a bit frantic, rushing to the start carrying all of our gear and arriving there with barely enough time to register, throw our drop bags in the appropriate piles to be sent to aid stations along the course, and have the always-needed pre-race bathroom stop. The one thing I will say is that there wasn't enough time to get nervous: when the race started, I was still pinning my bib on my shorts! Off we trotted in the darkness, a conga line of headlamps following a short loop around a lake before heading into the trails and our first major climb of the day. It was somehow soothing looking up and seeing an endless trail of lights snaking up the switchbacks ahead of me on the mountain - the anticipation of what the day would hold fading away with the familiar practice of just putting one foot in front of the other.

Hilary and I on a training run. Photo: Chloe Gendron
On a long training run a few weeks before Gorge, my friend Hilary and I had decided to stick together for as much of the race as made sense. This turned out to be the wisest possible decision for me, because we made an absolutely perfect team out there. Hilary is a self-described metronome when running, and we fell into a comfortable, consistent pace right from the beginning. Our strategy was to take the first half very easy, not pushing on the up or down hills, with the hopes of saving our legs for the later stages of the race. We also didn't want to spend too much time in aid stations: in and out in 2-3 minutes. Our goal was to hit the turn around at 50k somewhere in the ballpark of 6h30 (for the record, we hit it at exactly 6h30). I have to say, this strategy worked flawlessly. We chugged along, chatting when we felt like it and falling into comfortable silence when we didn't. I followed her lead, trusting in her experience of having run the course the year before. Although the trails weren't technical by BC standards, there were many off-camber sections filled with sharp rocks that were surprisingly slow to navigate. And though the course is described as a "rolling" 100k, there are actually quite a few really steep climbs and descents - there was very little flat running all day.

When it wasn't waterfalls, it was magical rocks and moss. A rare flat section.
The course is an out-and back, which means that you run through every aid station twice, except for the one at the turnaround. I really wasn't sure what I would be able to eat when running for this long; in 50k races I can get away with eating only energy gels, but they definitely start to turn my stomach by the end, so I knew I would have to mix it up for this race. I decided that variety would be the best strategy, so I packed a bunch of choices in each drop bag, so that I could pick up what I felt like: avocado, cut in half, seeded, salted and with a sprinkle of lemon; fig newtons; Trail Butter (which is a thin-textured mixed nut butter); roasted & salted edamame; and, of course, some energy chews and gels. I would also rely on aid station foods to supplement what I was carrying with me in my pack. It turned out that by far the best things for me were the avocado (I ate 2 1/2 avocados over the course of the day and was absolutely loving them - Hilary said to me afterward, "you talked about avocado alot". Haha.), the Trail Butter (delicious and filling), and bananas, oranges, chips, and Coke from the aid stations. The edamame was tasty, but turned into such a paste in my mouth that it was difficult to swallow. I carried gels and chews with me and took them every now and then - basically, I was trying to eat every 45 mins or so, which seemed to be enough for me not to bonk. My energy level stayed fairly constant all day. I was also running with my hydration bladder, filled with Nuun water - I'm not sure how much I drank because aid station volunteers always filled it up for me, but it was a very hot and humid day and I know I was drinking a lot.

The second half of the race was where things started to get interesting. After the turnaround, a psoas injury that I was dealing with in January flared up, and I found myself shuffling out of the aid station with quite a bit of pain in my right hipflexor when I went uphill. I stopped to stretch, and told Hilary to go ahead. I took an Advil and walked and chatted with Alicia for a while, who we had been surprised to happen upon on the trail at about 40k, sunning herself on a rock. She (clearly) wasn't having the day she had expected, but happily came along with us and as always kept a positive and upbeat attitude - and selfishly, I was loving spending a couple hours on the trail with 2 out of my 5 friends who were running the race! It was pretty special. The other nice part about the course being an out-and-back is that you got to see every single other runner on the course at some point, which means we also got to see Tara ("yay, you guys are doing so well!"; hugs ensuing), Tory ("UNICORNS!"), and Niki (Hi! Where the eff is the aid station?!"; I had asked the exact same thing maybe 30 minutes earlier, haha) when we crossed paths.

A "rolling" course, to 50k and back again. (Even though it's called a 100k race, the markers are in miles).
Anyway. My hip. The Advil, stretching, and walking did the trick and once I started running again, I found I felt amazing. On gently rolling sections and downhill stretches, I upped my pace a bit and it felt wonderful to open up my stride and run. I realized I was passing quite a few people, especially on the downhills, and was amazed at how relatively fresh I was feeling. I galloped into the Cascade Locks aid station at mile 40 (~64k) and was ecstatic to see Julien and Ryan (Alicia and Tara's boyfriends) and Arielle there, and to find out that Hilary had just come in as well. I told them I wanted to change my socks because I had been feeling some hot spots starting, and Arielle immediately sat me down in a chair, untied my shoes, pulled my disgusting compression socks off (not an easy task at the best of times), got me Coke, and even started digging her elbow into my quad when it seized up from sitting down. I had met this girl exactly one day before this. Seriously, the most amazing impromptu crew ever. I got freshly socked and shoed, reunited with Hilary, and we were off, together again - this whole process took only about 5 minutes.

The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I remember looking at my watch and being stunned that it was already 4 in the afternoon (How is it possible we've been running for 10 hours already? And are still running?). I remember doing the world' slowest "fartlek workout" on the dreaded 4k road section after the Yeon aid station at 80k (Let's just get to the end of the shade. Let's just get to that bridge). I know that I trudged off the trail into the woods to pee at one point, maybe with around 12 k remaining, and that was when Hilary and I separated for the final time (she ended up finishing 5 minutes before me. Amazing that we stayed so close over such a long distance). I ran the rest of the race by myself, feeling indescribably happy and grateful for the day I was having - and yes, eager to get to the finish. I passed so many people, and was passed by no one. I must have run by 8-10 women in the last 20k of the race, and every single one of them only had words of encouragement, which I of course returned. Something happened inside me, and I felt so strong - my legs were inconceivably fresh, my uphills were going better than they had all day and I bounded down descents that others were tiptoeing down. I crossed the finish line of my first 100k in 13h33 as the 15th woman in a highly competitive field. I high-fived race director James, and then immediately burst into tears as I was swallowed in hugs from my friends. 

Unicorns. Photo: Ryan Ledd

Trail sisters. Photo: Arielle Fitzgerald

This has been an exceptionally long story - but then, it was an exceptionally (for me, anyway) long run. As always, the parallels between endurance running and life are brought into sharp focus with experiences like this. I think that a recipe for success in both is to not be afraid to push yourself outside your comfort zone; to view challenges as opportunities for growth; and, most importantly, to surround yourself with people who lift you up instead of tear you down. I am eternally grateful to be blessed with so many people in my life like this: my parents, who have always supported my running and have been to countless races to cheer me on (my mom was waiting up in Quebec for me to let her know how the race went). Tara, Alicia, and Tory, who always believe in me and are as happy with and as proud of my achievements as they are of their own, and who are all amazingly talented runners who never let that get in the way of the fun of it all. Brendan, who at times understands me better than I understand myself, and who knew that I would get out of this race the exact experience that I did. And of course, Hilary, who I probably ran ~80% of this course with. Someone asked her during the race if we were sisters - and for that day, we were. The experience would not have been as rich without her by my side.

So for now, it's back to everyday life - but the beauty of these experiences is, you always carry them with you (both in your legs and in your heart). Onward to the next adventure. 

Photo: Hilary Matheson, taken the day before the race

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: A Year Measured in Adventures

How to reflect on the incredible year of running I've had? If I look at 2015 by the numbers, I've logged over 2300 km and, according to Strava, gained almost 57,000 m of elevation in 237 hours of running (this is an under-estimate, because my GPS watch dies on runs over 5 hrs, of which I did quite a few!). These statistics, though, don't really tell the story of what I achieved in my running this year. What can possibly capture the milestones and moments I experienced over the course of those 2300+ km?

Let's try another summary method ... If you're on Instagram, you'll have noticed lots of "best nine" posts recently - a collage of your nine photos that received the most "likes" in 2015. Here's what mine looks like:

These images inspire me to reflect on the amazing year of running experiences I've had, and to realize how different my 2015 was from the previous year. 2014 was about dealing with challenge after challenge - I was in survival mode for much of the year, and looking back it feels like a blur, some parts of which I can't even fully remember. This year, conversely, has been about accepting and moving forward from my cancer diagnosis and surgeries; it has been about discovering and fostering the ways in which I find peace, clarity, and positive energy. I have always loved running - but this year has reinforced not only how important it is for me to be able to run, but also how much strength and joy I gain from exploring in the wilderness for hours and days at a time, moving only on the power of my own two feet. 

And as those photos show, to what breathtaking places and experiences my own two feet have led me in 2015! I did local adventure runs like the 30k Howe Sound Crest Trail and 50k of the Sea to Sky trail from Whistler to Squamish; hiked and ran in Kelowna and Boulder, and in Banff, Yoho, Cypress, and Garibaldi Parks; completed a 50k circumnavigation of Mount St Helens; won the 5 Peaks Trail Running Series; raced my second ultra marathon and achieved a PB on the Squamish 50k course. All of these experiences were incredible, and carried me through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.

But still, as I reflect on the year, this selection of achievements and snapshots is missing something: there is another component to why many of these 2015 experiences were so meaningful and memorable. It's not just the distance run or elevation gained, nor is it the beautiful landscapes alone. Before this year, I was mostly a solo runner; I would sometimes join people for long runs, but for the vast majority of my runs I was out there by myself. I still highly value my alone time on the trails - but adventures, I have discovered, are that much better when shared. 

As well as sharing many incredible hiking and running experiences with Brendan this year, I've made some amazing friendships with strong, like-minded women, with whom I've pushed myself ever farther outside my comfort zone in the world of ultra running. It is these supportive, positive, and uplifting relationships that have elevated my 2015 from another year of running, to a year of true adventure. So, here's my version of Instagram's collage: less pictures of me on my own, more with the people who helped make this year one of my best to date. I can't wait to see what adventures 2016 has in store.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Lady of Fire: Circumnavigation of Mount St Helens


The Loowit Trail is a 50k loop around Mount St Helens that winds, climbs, and descends through incredibly rugged, diverse landscapes, gaining and losing 2300m of elevation over its course. This circumnavigation allows you to experience all the after effects of the catastrophic 1980 eruption of the volcano, and to witness the tenacity of the vegetation and wildlife that is slowly returning to the denuded environment. This past weekend, I went with three girlfriends to run this trail in one day. Organized by the incomparable Alicia, our adventure would have us camping overnight at the June Lake trailhead and striking out for the Loowit Trail at 8 a.m., carrying 2 L of water apiece, plus headlamps, clothing layers, emergency supplies, and LOTS of calories in various forms (from gels to Clif bars to Subway sandwiches to salty wasabi peas). We knew this was going to take much longer than your average 50k due to the technical and rugged nature of the terrain.


Starting at June Lake allowed us a steep but non-technical climb through the forest to start our day. After about 2 miles, we reached the junction with the Loowit Trail and were soon clambering over expansive lava fields, the route through which was marked with sporadic tall posts, small orange flags, and cairns. 

Tara and Alicia ascending the rocky lava field on the southwest side of the mountain

This early part of the day was when we were moving the most slowly, mostly due to the fact that we were rock-hopping along the lava beds and crossing several washed-out regions where we would need to scramble down a steep slope into a gully and back up the other side. We briefly lost the trail a couple times when crossing these gullies - but could always spot it on the other side - so the only real challenge was trying to find the best route down and up the loose scree. After about a 600m climb from our starting point, we topped out at just over 1400m elevation and were rewarded with a peek-a-boo view of Merrill Lake nestled in the rolling hills of the Cascades.
Lots of lava to navigate. View of Merrill Lake in the distance.
We continued across the seemingly never-ending sharp rocks for about another 6 km before reaching a spectacular 360 degree viewpoint where we could see Mt Hood to the south. 
Snack with a view. Mt. Hood in the far left of the picture. Photo: Tory Scholz
At this juncture the trail starts to climb and fall through subalpine forest, travels along the ridge of the enormous Sheep Canyon, and crosses a zone of burned trees and regenerating meadows. After about 3.5 hours of climbing and navigating extremely technical terrain, it was a joy to run on this section of trail with relatively good footing and stunning views all around. 
Running along the ridge of Sheep Canyon
Meadows and burned trees
The Loowit brought us down to the Toutle River on a fun, leafy trail that switchbacked through remnant old-growth forest, at the end of which we needed to descend to the river bed with a rope because of the steeply eroded valley walls consisting of loose rock and pumice. 22k into our day we stopped at the river to replenish our water and eat lunch.
Our lunch spot: the Toutle River
Initial climb out of the Toutle River Valley
Climbing out of the river valley was one of the highlights of the day for me. We had re-fuelled and had tons of energy as we scaled our way back up the valley wall and onto a steep, narrow trail that approached the northwest flank of the volcano, with the wind whipping up ash clouds all around us. This treed section gave way to a benched trail on an insanely steep, high slope where each step sunk your foot into ash. Pretty surreal.
Approaching the volcano from the northwest

There is a trail there, I swear.
As we finally crested the ridge we were approaching the north side of the volcano, where the full force of the 1980 eruption blew apart the mountain and completely denuded the landscape. We first passed through more burned trees, with great views of the volcano to our right, and then stopped in our tracks as we entered the "blast zone".
Cresting the ridge on the northwest side of the mountain.
The edge of the blast zone
The Loowit Trail is named after Loowitlatkla ("Lady of Fire"), a woman in Native American Puyallup mythology who tended a sacred fire to which people would travel from miles around to get embers for their own fires. The legend goes that Loowit, as she was known, became entangled in a love triangle in which two brothers were competing for her - this culminated in a fight where entire villages were burned and forests went up in flames. A grand chief killed all three of the lovers but felt saddened at losing them, so raised a great mountain where each of them fell. According to this myth (of which this is only one version), Loowit became Mount St. Helens, and the two brothers became Mount Hood and Mount Adams. 
Looking north across the other-worldly blast zone
Looking south across the blast zone toward "the breach" - the section of the volcano that blew apart


Entering the blast zone, one could easily imagine how these great volcanoes inspired legends that were part mythology and part oral history. Running across this landscape was like being on another planet. We traversed kilometre after kilometre of rolling, dune-like barren plains, with one stream crossing where we topped off our water supplies one last time. We took in the view of Spirit Lake, its shore littered with burned, felled trees, pushed ashore by the lake and whitewashed over time to form a ghostly looking beach. We saw a herd of at least 100 elk crossing the plains toward the lake. Borne most likely out of fatigue and waning energy, we did have a brief moment of paranoia that the elk were going to corner then trample us(!) - but unsurprisingly, this did not happen, and we continued happily on our separate ways.
Crossing the blast zone, with Spirit Lake in the background. Photo: Tara Berry








Elk. These were the ones we thought were breaking away from the herd to corner us. Photo: Tory Scholz
Once through the blast zone, we had to run up to a high pass on the northeast side of the mountain, which was a difficult climb at this point in the day (we had been out there for about 8.5 hours). When we reached the top the wind was unbelievably strong - we later found out that this is aptly called Windy Pass. Laughing and struggling to put our jackets on (the wind was flapping them around so much it was hard to get your arms in), we hurried down the other side onto the plains of Abraham, through which the Loowit is a lovely, gently rolling, runnable trail. At some point along this section we passed a signpost that said "June Lake Trail, 6.8 miles", and were shocked that we only had this far left in our day. It felt amazing to be running easily again, and we made good time through this section ... until we reached a series of extremely challenging, sketchy gully crossings. 
Clinging. Photo: Tara Berry
This was the toughest part of the day for me mentally because I have quite a fear of traversing steep, slippery hills that slope downward to the side - terrain like this makes me freeze up and take ridiculously careful steps while clinging to whatever I can find that seems somewhat solid. Considering I was tired, the light was on the verge of starting to fade, and there were several of these in a row ... down, up, across, down, up, across ... it became a game of mental strength to keep going. Luckily I was out there with three of the most supportive, strong women you can imagine - and we got through it together, without incident.
Looking east toward Mount Adams. Photo: Tory Scholz
Once through these relentless gully crossings the sun was starting to set and we were treated to a spectacular view of Mount Adams to the east. We actually thought that our climbing was over at this point, but ended up needing to navigate another lava field on the southeast side of the mountain that never seemed to end. We finished the last 40 minutes or so of the route with our headlamps on, and were needless to say quite excited when we started running down through forested trails once more and finally reached the June Lake trailhead junction where we had started the day almost 11 hours earlier.

This was an amazing, rugged, beautiful, challenging adventure, and only the third time in my life I've run 50k (I use the term "run" loosely here - there was definitely a lot of hiking/scrambling/climbing/clinging as well). I have the utmost respect for Mount St Helens, and am so thankful that Loowit was there to guide us and allow us to experience her incredible landscapes firsthand, on our own power. And I am forever grateful to have wonderful, strong, adventurous women like this in my life, who, like me, think that running around a volcano is the perfect way to spend a girls' weekend.




Sunday, 4 October 2015

Getting Off the Road: My 5 Favourite Things About Being a 5 Peaks Ambassador

The 5 Peaks racing season came to an end last weekend with a race on beautiful trails around Buntzen Lake in Port Moody. I've spent the last year acting as an Ambassador for 5 Peaks, which has been a tremendously rewarding experience in many ways. I thought that I would devote this blog post to reflecting on some of the reasons why this has been such a great gig (in no particular order):

1. The amazing race courses. I ran in three of the BC races over the spring and summer, at Golden Ears Provincial Park, Alice Lake Provincial Park, and Mt Seymour. All of these offered challenging, beautiful trails that were a joy to run on. (I also managed to race the three that had perfect weather...lucky or just good planning?). Racers had to cross streams, leap over and duck under fallen trees, navigate technical rocks and roots, and grind it out on steep climbs and descents. In short: they are perfect trail races. 

2. Witnessing people run their first trail race. What an inspiring thing to be witness to. I talked to so many runners at the events who were trying trail for the first time, and reactions varied from instant love to statement like "well, I can't really say I had fun during the race...". The thing is, even that latter group - I guarantee - would come back for more. Trail running has a way of doing that. In the Seymour race, I came third to 2 teenage girls, one of whom was running her first trail race (which, incidentally, she won). Her enthusiasm afterward was palpable: safe to say she is well and truly hooked. And speaking of young talented runners, that brings me to:

3. Seeing the kids race their hearts out. Each 5 Peaks race has a 1k and 3k kids race, which are usually run by the kids of racers and/or volunteers. I absolutely love seeing how excited and proud these racers are, from little tiny ones running with their parents to 10 and 11 year olds blasting through the 3k course. It's such a positive, fun atmosphere and a wonderful way to introduce kids to running, friendly competition, and the joy of spending time in nature.

4. The inclusivity. 5 Peaks honours every single runner, and I truly believe that everyone at these races comes away feeling like they are equal participants. Partly because every event has a short and a long course option, these are great races to try as a first foray into trail running. At Buntzen Lake, I didn't race but was volunteering as a sweeper for the 10k Sport course. My sweeping partner was a woman I had never met, but who had also done several races this season - in which, in her words, she finished dead last. After sweeping the course with her, I picked up the prize for winning the overall series title. We had a fantastic hike/run together, getting completely soaked in the rain and chatting the entire time about ultra running and personal stories - because, at the root of it, all trail runners are part of the same community. And with that sentiment, my final point:

5. Meeting so many like-minded people. Before I became a 5 Peaks Ambassador, I ran mostly on my own. This is something that I still love to do, but I also love that engaging with this community has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people, many of whom I now consider friends as well as running partners. It has led to incredible running adventures and the amazing phenomenon of participating in events (either as a racer or a volunteer) and feeling like half the people there are family.

As the 2015 season draws to a close, I want to thank Race Director Solana for taking me on as part of her 5 peaks team (and trail family), and of course Brendan for coming to all of my races and always being my #1 fan and supporter. People often think of running as an individual sport, which of course it largely is - but it is also a sport filled with a tremendous amount of love and support from others. I like to think that this is especially true of trail running: there is just something about getting off the road that seems to bring out the best in people. 

All photos courtesy of Rob Shaer.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Squamish 50k 2015: Overcoming Obstacles

Just in case running 50k isn't challenging enough, it seems that the Squamish 50 is determined to throw additional roadblocks in the path to achieving my goals. Last year I had to undergo surgery 2 months before the race and take a subsequent 6 weeks for recovery - which meant I went into the race very undertrained. I did it anyway, with a decent time and a solid 11th place finish, but I was determined and excited to do better in 2015. I've worked so hard this year to overcome last year's health setbacks, and by the end of June was feeling fit, confident, and poised to have a major time breakthrough on the course. And then...

When I broke my wrist and banged up my knee last month in a bike crash, I was instantly worried that I wouldn't be able to run. This race is no walk in the park: with a course that has 2500 m of elevation gain and 2750 m of descent, runners are guaranteed to be either running up or down technical mountain forest trails for the entire 50 kilometres. The accident happened exactly 5 weeks before race day, and my thoughts were once again consumed with unknowns: Could I recover in that time? Would I lose too much fitness while I waited to heal? Would my arm be in a cast for the race? If so, would I be able to run downhill fast without the fear of falling and doing more damage? I couldn't run - or even walk well, for that matter - for the first 10 days after the crash because I had stitches in my knee and elbow; once those were removed and I could run again, my wrist seemed to just be a bit achy, but it was clear that my knee was not in good shape. 3 1/2 weeks before the race, I went for a trial hike/run with a friend up Legacy Climb trail, one of the major ascents on the course - and had pain in my knee the entire time I was climbing. Not a good sign. 

Discouraged, I started seeing a physio, who tried just about everything: IMS, acupuncture, ultrasound, massage, and a crazy hip adjustment that had her almost yanking me clear off the table. I was going out for only short runs, and diligently foam rolling and stretching at home. (note: foam rolling is no easy task with your arm in a cast!). And slowly, I started to feel better. I had a few encouraging runs of ~90 minutes with minimal pain ... and although that is about 5 1/2 hrs short of how long the race would take me, some hope started to creep back in. 2 weeks before the race, my cast came off and was replaced with a much sleeker, lighter, removable splint. I went for a run on Mountain of Phlegm, which is the tough 10k section at the end of the race, and I felt strong and pain-free (if a bit slow). I knew then that I could finish the 50k, and that I would just need to modify my time goal from 6 1/2 hours to 7. If worse came to worse, I would hike as much of the race as necessary to get to that finish line. In short, it was on.

Relieved the back pain has gone - 4.5 hrs into the race
Race day dawned cool and clear, and all my anxieties and fears were washed away and replaced with the excitement of lining up at the start and running all morning on my favourite trails. I reminded myself that this is what I love to do, and that my finish time really didn't matter: what mattered was just that I was out there running. I wasn't going to let the fear of falling on my wrist deter me from running the way I always do. I ran into the Quest aid station at roughly halfway through the race in exactly the same time as last year, but feeling much better. I set out for Legacy Climb trail feeling confident, but a completely unexpected disaster struck as I began to climb: my lower back kept erupting into spasms that were incredibly painful. I have no idea where this came from, and was honestly considering dropping out of the race at the next aid station if things didn't get better. It took me a full hour to reach the top of the trail, and I was pretty much in agony the entire time. Miraculously though, as soon as I started running downhill, the pain completely went away, and never came back for the remainder of the race. Just another little challenge thrown in there I guess, in case I was getting bored...

Steps before the finish line
The last 10 miles of the race were a bit of a blur. I do know that I felt much, much stronger than last year; although I was obviously tiring, I was having almost none of the leg muscle pain that I was dealing with in my first attempt at this distance. An extra year of experience running on these trails (getting "mountain legs", as Brendan calls it), as well as having a much more solid base of long training runs this year, was paying off. I passed a number of people in this section, especially on the downhills where familiarity with the trails and terrain is a big advantage. I knew that I was consistently picking up time on my 2014 splits, and was moving up in the standings (I left Quest as the 18th woman, and ended up 11th). In the end, I ran 6h55, bettering my 2014 time by 18 minutes. Funny enough, I finished in the same position as last year despite the faster time: the women were incredibly strong this year and it was amazing to be in a field of such great runners.

I've had a couple weeks now to reflect on this experience, and as usual have learned a few valuable lessons. Initially, it seemed like such a blow to sustain those injuries 5 weeks before the race - but I actually think the accident was a kind of blessing in disguise. As I wrote in my last blog post, when I broke my wrist I had been feeling run down and tired for about a week, and my legs weren't recovering well from my last long run of 40k. It is very possible I was headed toward being burnt out or injured, and the bike crash forced me to take the down time that my body probably needed. As a friend commented, it was a hell of a way for my body to get my attention - but then again I am not always the best "listener"; this is something I am actively working on. Although I was worried about losing fitness, and especially missing a last long run before the race, in reality I had plenty of endurance and strength going in and was only lacking a bit of speed (which is a relative term anyway, in a 50k race!). I had put in over 1500 km of running since January, with over 40,000 m of elevation gain - I needed to put my trust in that training, and have the confidence that it would pull me through.

Do I still think I could go faster on that course, without any setbacks leading up to the race? Absolutely. But the thing is, it is very rare that everything goes perfectly in training. I know this from years of experience training for marathons; in 10 races, only once did everything go completely according to plan (and that was the race where I set my current PB). Rather than wondering what could have been, I think a more useful way to reflect is this: there will always be obstacles, in some form or another. It is how you deal with them that matters; whether you decide to let them get the better of you, or to embrace and work with them. I've now had to adjust my goals for the Squamish 50k both years that I've run it - but both years, it has been an incredibly meaningful and proud moment for me to cross that finish line. 
Obstacles? Overcome.