Thursday, 23 March 2017

Chuckanut 50k 2017: From Slow in the Snow to Pain in the Rain

Back in November, when building my race calendar for this year, I decided that 2017 would be a year to focus on running faster over the 50k distance. I planned 3 races, with Chuckanut 50k being a 'B' race - not my main goal race for the year, but a race at which I wanted to perform well. Being in mid-March, Chuckanut is a great first ultra of the year to test your fitness. 

Last year, I found out 2 weeks before Chuckanut that I had been invited off the waiting list into Gorge 100k, so instead of tapering for the race I used the 50k as my last long training run. I had a smooth, easy day on the course and finished in 5:23, placing 22nd overall in a stacked women's field and 1st in the 40-49 age group. I recovered really well from the race, and was back running 3 days later. Leading up to the race, I had really only managed 8 weeks of solid training, due to a nagging hipflexor strain that kept flaring up at the beginning of 2016. Encouraged by that performance considering relatively little training, I wanted to do things differently this year. I planned a 16 week training block, with a nice gradual rise in distance and with tempo runs and hill repeats peppered in after the first month of base training. I was confident that with targeted, consistent training and more of a "race" mindset going into the day, I could knock at least 15 minutes off my 2016 time.

These mugs are the best...

Spoiler alert: I didn't come anywhere near that goal. Instead of finishing 15 minutes faster on the course, I finished 17 minutes slower. 5:40, 21st woman, somehow 1st in 40-49 again. And I'm really proud of this: I realized early on in the day that I wasn't going to be able to run the time I was aiming for, so switched from 'race' mode to 'survival' mode pretty quickly. But it is still worth asking the question: What the heck happened?!

I am still trying to figure that out, to be honest. But there are a bunch of factors that could have contributed to my slower than anticipated race. The obvious one is the winter that we've just had to train through: I wrote about this in my last post, and won't rehash it all here. Suffice it to say that the snow made it incredibly hard to run on the trails, and I ended up only having two long runs not in snow from December until race day: one was a 35k in Bellingham, running the middle portion of the Chuckanut course with friends, and the other was a road 21k that I did the day after struggling through a 3.5 hour trail run in which we only made it 23 k. Because it was taking so long to cover distance on the trails, I ended up doing lots of back-to-back long run weekends (e.g. 3-4 hours Saturday and another 2.5-3 hrs Sunday), which I find generally prepare me well for races. However, I think that repeatedly doing long runs in the snow, where you're having to work much harder than normal to move forward, took a heavier toll on my legs than I realized at the time.

Run Ridge Run 25k. 3:03; 4th female. PC: Chris Thorn
The other main factor, I think, was  a lack of climbing (and descending) in training. Last winter our trails were snow-free, so I was regularly gaining and losing over 1500m on long runs. This winter, we couldn't access any of our usual climbing trails, so my runs had overall much less elevation. The only two runs I had with significant elevation gain and loss this year were that training day on the course, and the Run Ridge Run 25k race, which I did both this year and last, 3 weeks before Chuckanut. I had a really strong run at that race this year, taking 10 minutes off my 2016 time. At the time it gave me a great confidence boost for Chuckanut - but it's possible that running hard in that race took more out of me than I thought, and the effort combined with the sudden return to elevation was a recipe for my legs to rebel.

The week before Chuckanut, my right knee was incredibly achy and sore, so much so that I couldn't sleep well at night. I tried to chalk this up to the usual mysterious taper pains, but I can't pretend I wasn't worried about it. In the race, it very quickly (in the first 10k) became clear that something was mechanically wrong with my whole right leg; I was having different pains for every different type of running (Hip pain on the flat. Behind the knee pain on the rolling sections. Calf pain on the climbs. Quad pain on the descents). This is not normal! It was really bizarre, and I think maybe it was just some manifestation of lots of damage built up over the winter of training. I was staying on top of my hydration (though I probably could have drunk more); I was consuming electrolytes, and plenty of food. 

Chuckanut 50k. Still smiling! PC: Glenn Tachiyama
By the time I reached the Cleator Rd climb, only 20k into the race, I had thrown my time goal out the window and resolved to just run as hard as I could given how I was feeling. I managed a PB on that 5k steady road climb, and also on the Chuckanut Ridge trail, which is my favourite part of the course. I think after the ridge is where I started losing the most time - I felt like I was pushing, but my legs just couldn't move quickly. The course was also extremely muddy and wet, but I can't see that playing a huge role in slowing me down (especially since I was used to running in so much snow!). 

The stretch from the top of Chinscraper, down Cleator Rd and Fragrance Lake Rd, was agonizing for my quads - and I usually love downhill! At this point, I realized that my left quad was now really sore, which I knew meant I had been compensating for my right leg issues by carrying more weight on my left side. Somehow, through all of this, I was still having a great time - despite the current pain, I was fairly certain I wasn't doing any lasting damage, and kept reminding myself how much I love running, no matter what the race outcome is. Sometimes the mental toughness we can gain from this sport amazes me! The last 10k of the race is back along the Interurban trail, and I had mentally prepared myself for how hard this feels - but I still slogged my way through it at a snail's pace, and it seemed to take an eternity. My watch had lost GPS signal at about 46k, and out of desperation a little while later I asked a couple that I passed how long they thought it was to the finish...and they said "3 miles"! I thought I was going to die, haha. In the end, it was more like 2k, and I dragged myself across the finish line in great relief.

It's now 5 days later, and my legs are just starting to feel better. I have a miserable head cold, which I think may have been lurking on race day and a contributing factor to my general feeling of malaise. The leg situation is still a mystery, but I'm hoping that my physio can get to the bottom of what happened there. So, where does this leave me, you might ask, in my year of "faster 50ks"? Well, in a pretty good place, I'd say. I've already had 16 weeks of consistent training, and now have a 50k long run under my belt. I'm taking some down time now, which obviously my body needed. Once I feel healthy again, I'll slowly start ramping my running back up, and will be able to build on all that hard work I did over the winter. 

And through it all, I still love doing this, and am hungry for more. What more can you ask for, really? Oh, and yes I'll be coming back to Chuckanut in 2018. I still have a little score to settle with that course ;)

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Training in (real) Winter: Stumbling into Gratitude

The Hypothermic Half Marathon, Montreal 2007
Let me start with this: I'm from Quebec. I am plenty used to training for spring races through brutally cold winters. I've raced a half marathon when it was -30 degrees C outside. I suffered frostbitten fingers after a long run because a truck splashed me from head to toe with frigid slush and my hands got soaked when I tried to wipe the slush off my jacket. I've seen my running partners' balaclavas (yes, we had to wear balaclavas) completely frosted over in white. Having hot showers after runs sometimes felt like being stabbed with thousands of tiny needles. I once ended up in a freezing rain storm so horrendous that I was trying to run with my eyes closed and seriously considered lying in a ditch on the side of the road until it blew over. I used to say my favourite temperature for winter running was -15: cold enough so that the snow on the roads was packed down solid. So believe me when I say, I am not just a fair weather runner. 

Pic: Hilary Matheson
But this winter - this oddly snowy, crazy La Nina-fuelled BC winter, has been the hardest one I've ever had to train in. Why? For one, I'm frankly not used to it anymore. Winter here in Squamish, in my experience, is usually about a month of pretty snow with a return to shorts-clad running on dirt by the end of January. Secondly, I'm not running road races anymore. When you're training for a road marathon, you run on roads, for the most part. And even when the weather is awful, most days you can still run on roads fairly normally (with some exceptions, of course); you just need to bundle up, watch your footing, and be prepared to run a little slower than you're used to running. When you're training for a trail ultra marathon (as I currently am - Chuckanut 50k, which is on March 18th), you mostly run on trails - at least, ideally. Specificity in training, and all of that. And this is where things get interesting. Most of my usual trails are not runnable right now (due to being buried in snow), and the ones that are "runnable" are still slip-sliding, post-holing, crusty snow ankle-grabbing, hidden icy patch obstacle courses. Instead of complaining, though ... ok , I've complained a tiny bit, but only after these last 2 massive snowfalls that came right as the original massive snowfall was starting to melt ... I'm going to offer a list of tips for us to all get through this while trying to still get a solid training block in and maybe, just maybe, realize that this winter is exactly what we needed:

1. Be prepared to give up on distance and just go for time on feet (this is my wordiest tip, mostly because I am terrible at taking my own advice here):

Note that while my moving time on this run was 3:46, my elapsed time was 4:41! 
This is easier said than done if you are a numbers person and have even a moderately Type A personality, as a lot of runners do (myself included). Going by time on feet makes a lot of sense in ultra running, especially if you are running in mountainous terrain where it can take inordinate amounts of time to cover very short distances. But on the trails I train on most frequently in Squamish, which are certainly hilly but all mostly runnable, my preference is still to map out runs - especially long runs - by distance. Usually I can route a run by distance easily, and know the approximate time it will take me to run it. This has not been the case this winter. I'm still clinging to my distances by my fingernails, but it has not been easy and I have had to relax my goals on a number of occasions. Here's a perfect example of a day last month when I should have given up on distance, but didn't. I'll offer a 'running' commentary of the thoughts going through my head on this 30k solo adventure:

I know, I'll route one big loop. A good chunk of it is on a logging road, which should definitely be cleared. I'll just run a few trails to get there, which should be ok since they are under lots of tree cover. Ok, well these trails are knee-deep snow. But that's alright, they're short and steep anyway, I'll just push through it. Once I'm on the road, it will be great!... And yes, it is great! Perfect tire tracks to run in. The mountains are beautiful. I love this. Logging roads have great views. Maybe I'll just take this connector trail instead of running the whole way on the road...oh, well ok now I'm plowing through thigh-deep snow. Oh god, it just took me half an hour to cover like 2 k. And the hose of my hydration bladder is now frozen solid. But I'm almost back to the road; then it will be all smooth sailing. Ohhh...where did my tire tracks go? Why is the road now shin-deep crusty snow that cuts my ankles every time I punch through it? Maybe I should invest in gaiters. Maybe I'll just wait here for someone to find me...but no, I must keep going. Holy eff, this road is so much longer than I remember it being! When I finally get to a runnable trail, I might cry [I literally almost cried]. 

Back to the tip: don't do what I did on this run. Some days, you just need to throw your distance goals out the window. 

2. Use particularly miserable days to do workouts.

Hill repeats in freezing rain. See Footnote for my gear of choice.
Case in point: hill repeats. Every time I've done them this winter, it has been either pouring rain or essentially a blizzard. One day I put my microspikes on my shoes and did them on an incline of sheer ice. Let's face it, hill repeats are never going to be fun anyway, so you might as well do them on days when you just want a 'good bang for your buck' run. 

3. Laugh. Remind yourself that trail running is really just playing outside.

Pic: Starr McLachlan
Running in snow is pretty hilarious. It's insanely hard, and in these conditions even the most coordinated runner with the best form can look like a drunk person toddling through the snow. Running on trails in winter is the closest I get to re-creating that feeling of playing outside as a kid, and that's pretty special. Once you stop thinking about it as work, your whole perspective shifts and it's nearly impossible not to laugh at yourself.

4. Get out there with friends.

There are a few reasons why this is a good idea. First of all, making plans with someone gets your butt out the door when your every instinct is to curl back up in bed with a cup of coffee. Second, I defy you to not have a good time once you are out there. Yes, the running will be ridiculous at times, especially when you find yourselves breaking trail or trying to cross a bridge with so much snow on it that you can't see where the bridge actually is under your feet. On the run pictured above, it was something like -14 and we were running loops of the only well-packed trail in town to get our long run in. But sharing these experiences with friends is priceless, and will give you war stories to relive for many sunny months to come. 

5. Practice gratitude.

Pic: Starr McLachlan
So your training is maybe not going quite the way you wanted: your runs have been more stumbly (mis)adventures than smooth tempo runs, and your mileage is nowhere near where you wanted it to be. You've also been granted the good fortune of:
    • Working out those stabilizing muscles! They're important for trail running, right?
    • Wearing all those cute toques that you rarely get to run in.
    • Practicing for technical trail conditions by finding good lines down icy, chunky snow-filled trails.
    • Slowing things down for a change.
    • Spending hours (and hours) in nature, both solo and with friends.
    • Being able to escape the insanity of current world events into a much simpler, happier place.
    • Running in an absolute winter wonderland.
    • Having that feeling that if you can get through this, you can get through anything.
And there you have it. I have no idea how my race is going to go in 5 weeks, but I have to believe that training in these conditions, while not ideal, is making me stronger. And most importantly, despite having been running in snow for the last 10 weeks or so, on reflection I've had one of the most fun winters of training ever. Grateful for the blessing of doing "hard work" in the snow, in beautiful forests, with friends? You bet I am. 

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

2016 in Review: Life, the Universe, and Everything

2016. Much has been written about how this year has been a rough one, in so many ways for so many people. I too have had a year full of turmoil - though, I admit that as I get older I increasingly wonder if life really is just turmoil, and the secret is just to figure out how to find happiness and peace in the midst of all the challenges we inevitably face. I turned 42 this year - which, incidentally, is the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" (if you're a Douglas Adams fan). 42 is also the critical angle at which sunlight refracts when hitting raindrops in order for a rainbow to form, and it is the number of kilometres run in a marathon. So all things considered, I guess I can expect the next year to be a good one - full of rainbows, cosmic answers, and (ultra)marathons. No pressure, 2017.

Why the Gorge 100k experience was so great.
But back to this year. My running started out with a bang, racing the Chuckanut 50k in March and Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April (my longest run to date). Unexpectedly entering the 100k race off the wait list a month before the event meant that I had not trained for that distance and, combined with running it 2 weeks after the 50k, resulted in a nagging hip flexor strain turning into a full-blown injury. I had an amazing experience during that race and would not change my decision to run it, but it did come with the consequence of losing about 3 months of running while I rehabbed the injury. Luckily, despite not being able to run, I was able to hike, so I was spared going completely crazy by still getting onto the local trails most days.

Just as I was starting to inch my way back into running regularly in July, with my sights set on the Squamish 50k race in August, we received the news that my dad was terminally ill. I have written about this already, and will not rehash the experience here. Suffice it to say that the summer was a terribly difficult period, and yet also full of cherished time spent with my family. If there is any silver lining about all of this, it is that I was able to run through this time. If my dad's diagnosis and the subsequent months had coincided with when I was injured, I would have been without my foremost coping mechanism and know I would have felt more at sea than I already did. I ran home from the hospital almost every day while my dad was there, and took to the mountains for long exploratory runs when he left us. For months afterward, the only time I really felt like myself was when I was out running, the longer run the better - as always, it helped me to heal from the inside-out. 

Whistler Alpine Meadows race. Photo courtesy of Brian McCurdy.
Having missed my goal race for the summer, I registered instead for the Whistler Alpine Meadows 50k, an extremely difficult and beautifully rugged race that gains 3350m of elevation. Leading up to that race, I ran the Salomon Valley to Peak 23k as a training run, pushing myself extremely far outside of my comfort zone (read: rolling trails and down hill) to "race" up to the peak of Whistler mountain from the village. I was satisfied with a 12th place finish, especially after having missed so much training over the summer. 3 weeks after Valley to Peak in September and 5 weeks after my dad passed, I took on Whistler Alpine Meadows as my first ultra since running the 100k at the beginning of April. The race was everything I needed and wanted it to be, and in the last 2 hours I spent a large chunk of time running completely by myself through the stunning ... well, alpine meadows of Whistler. I talked out loud to my dad quite a bit, and cried a little, and felt incredibly light, happy, and peaceful despite having already run for over 6 hours. I crossed the line of that race as the 5th place female, which was my best result of this season full of literal and figurative ups and downs.

Fall Running Shenanigans
The fall was chock full of fun running adventures with my girlfriends and Brendan, including running 40k to Opal Cone in Garibaldi Provincial Park (with Brendan on his bike for part of it), 68k around Mount Hood in Oregon,  and squeezing in a traverse of the local favourite 29k Howe Sound Crest Trail on Thanksgiving weekend. We ran in costumes to Elfin Lakes on Halloween, and had my birthday party on a 3.5 hour trail run, also in costumes and fuelled by donuts and beer gels. As a side effect of being injured through the spring and early summer, this fall has been more about ramping my running back up than winding it down as I normally would be doing at the end of the year. Despite the forced down time, I am closing 2016 having run over 2000 km and climbed over 60,000 m of elevation, and have had the opportunity to explore many beautiful places that I had never seen - and as Kilian Jornet puts it, use running as a vehicle to "discover landscapes both inside and outside".

My experiences in 2016 have helped shape my running goals for next year. To try to avoid the somewhat haphazard nature of my running from this year, I'm heading into 2017 with only 2 goal races: Chuckanut 50k again in March, and Squamish 50k in August. I'll do a few other shorter races in between, but want to focus on running faster over the 50k distance rather than running farther. There are definitely some longer races in my future, including a 100k that I actually train for (the novelty!) and a 100 miler eventually, but I am in no real hurry to get there. There are already a number of running adventures in the works for next year as well, which are my favourite (though admittedly unusual) girls' weekends with friends who also happen to think that running all day through the mountains is a fun way to spend their time.

It's amazing how important running continues to be for me, and how my relationship to it is constantly evolving: at different times in my life, I have needed it for different reasons. Every year of running brings new experiences and prompts unique reflections; but the common thread is that it grounds me and gives me clarity, both in happy and sad times. I am looking forward to discovering what 2017 (the year of 42) has in store.

 I like this year's collage because almost all of my favourite running friends are pictured :)

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Wy'east Wandering: Circumnavigation of Mount Hood

Last fall, three girlfriends and I ran around Mount St Helens on the Loowit trail - and had such an incredible experience that we promptly decided to make a volcano run an annual trip. This year's adventure took us a bit farther south in the Cascade chain of stratovolcanoes, to Mount Hood in Oregon. The route around Mount Hood follows the Timberline trail, a 40-mile (65.5k) long Forest Service trail that gains a total of 9,000 ft (2700 m) as it winds around the flanks of the mountain, through alpine meadows, across ridges, and falling and rising in and out of glacial river valleys. We researched the route beforehand and found that most people travel in a clockwise direction from Timberline Lodge - this was also the route that Tara and Alicia had done last year. Based on that experience, however, Tara suggested that this year we travel counterclockwise, in order to cover the most difficult and highest terrain earlier on in the day. This turned out to be a very wise decision (more on this shortly), and I would certainly recommend this to anyone setting out later in the season as we did.
Winter, is that you? Gnarl Ridge (yes, that's really what it's called). Photo: Tara Berry
Our day started at 7 am from the lodge, which is situated at 4700ft (1400m) - it was snowing lightly and, based on a fickle forecast, we knew we were in for a potentially cold/snowy/rainy day. We carried the ten essentials with us, which included tons of clothing layers (including puffy jackets and Goretex shells, spare socks, gloves, and toques or buffs), basic first aid supplies, lots of calories in various forms and 2L of water apiece, a water filter and purifying tablets, matches, whistles, headlamps and emergency bivy sacks, a hard copy trail map as well as a GPS route programmed into RunGo on two separate phones, and a Spot tracker so that friends could follow our progress and know where we were located at all times. Yes, our packs were stuffed, and quite heavy - but Timberline is a wilderness route not to be taken lightly, and we felt confident that we were well prepared for the journey. 
A long journey: Our objective for the day. Timberline Lodge is on the south side of Mount Hood.
I wasn't sure how my body would feel after having just run a hard mountain 54k race the week before, but as we started running my legs felt great and my mind was excited for a day of adventuring with friends. Setting out to the east from the lodge, we started across barren pumice slopes and then dropped down into a small canyon before eventually running along Boy Scout ridge with a view of White River Canyon. The early running was quite cruisy, on smooth trail through alpine scrub with periodic views of gorgeous waterfalls. On a clear day the panorama from the ridge would have been incredible, but the scenery in our immediate environment was so beautiful that we weren't missing the sweeping views. A good lesson in appreciating what you have, in the moment! 

Setting out from Timberline Lodge
Timberline switchbacks down to the White River, which was our first major glacial river crossing of the day. Chloe is skilled at picking good routes across streams as well as finding the best footing to do so, and we quickly fell into a fairly smooth routine of her guiding the rest of us across each crossing. The only issues we had with crossings all day was difficulty finding the trail once we were on the other side; trails were marked with cairns, but often there were cairns leading to campsites as well, instead of back to the Timberline trail. 
Crossing the White River
Once we located the trail, we were treated to a long, steep climb on forested switchbacks to reach Mount Hood Meadows, bursting with beautiful alpine fall colours. The sun even made a brief appearance, and spirits were high as we made our way through the meadows and down and up several more river valleys, including Clark and Newton creeks, fed by the Newton Clark glacier. refers to these creeks as "a silly torrent" and "the most unruly of Hood's glacial streams", respectively, but we made the crossings without incident. As we climbed our way out of Newton Creek Canyon about 4 hours into our run, we were heading toward its northern rim, which was to be the highest point of our day on Gnarl Ridge. 
Emily making her way through Mount Hood Meadows
Gnarl ridge is named for the twisted, ancient whitebark pines that grow in this harsh, exposed environment - but on our journey, the name was also quite appropriate to the conditions we experienced there. Being the highest elevation (about 6800 ft/2000m) that Timberline travels through, and very exposed, as soon as we crested the ridge we were greeted with swirling, pelting snow pellets and high winds that actually blew me off my course with each step. We pushed our way toward a tiny copse of trees and were amazingly sheltered behind them (thanks, gnarly pines!), and quickly stopped to put on extra layers - at this point I was wearing pretty much everything I had brought, including a long sleeved Merino wool shirt, a puffy jacket, a shell, and my toque and gloves. We discussed our concern that if these conditions persisted, it may not be safe to continue and we should probably turn around, but Tara knew that this was where we were topping out and that we would soon be descending the other side of the ridge, so we decided to keep moving forward and take stock a little further on. Sure enough, once we were on the other side of the ridge we slowly moved out of the snow and wind, and never saw those conditions again for the rest of the day. This cemented in our minds that our counter-clockwise route was the best decision, at least on that day - navigating that terrain near the end of our run when we were exhausted and wet would have been quite dangerous.
All the layers, and a gnarled Whitebark Pine. Photo: Tara Berry
Running down from the ridge took us through a forest before reaching a loose, rocky section that gives way into an expansive boulder field with a couple short snow traverses. Timberline here travels high on the shoulder of Cooper Spur, and we cruised our way down this section, now sheltered from the wind and losing elevation as we approached the Cloud Cap campground. A rainbow appeared in the distance, as if to reassure us that everything was going to be ok, and we ended up chasing this rainbow around the mountain for the next several hours. We crested Ghost Ridge, and started picking our way down a trail toward the Eliot glacier basin crossing. 
Ghost Ridge, overlooking Eliot basin. There's a glacier somewhere in that fog.

Everything that we had read before the run had warned us about how difficult this crossing would be, due to a 2006 debris flow that had washed out the trail and left steep canyon walls full of loose rock. It sounds like the trail that we followed had just recently been completed as a detour from the original washed out route, and we had no problems at all with the crossing. The climb up the other side of the canyon was a steep scramble and there were definitely some loose rocks, but we all made it up smoothly despite a couple of us (myself included) having a fear of heights. I have realized that my fear has diminished quite a lot since the Mount St Helens run last year - this section didn't bother me at all, and I know that it would have a year ago. The more adventure runs I do like this; the further I incrementally push myself outside my comfort zone, the more confident I become. It's encouraging, and exciting.
Climbing out of Eliot basin. You can see the trail we came down on the other side at the top of the picture.
Photo: Chloe Gendron
Now on the rugged north side of Mount Hood, we ran through the remnants of the Dollar Lake fire, a massive wildfire caused by a lightning strike in 2011 that burned for 2 months and eventually consumed over 6000 acres of high elevation forest. This part of the run was a highlight for me - the burned out forest was so eerily beautiful, and offered some of the best vistas we had seen so far. Despite having been decimated by the fire, this landscape was teeming with new growth among the burned white trees. As with the vegetation that is slowly returning to the flanks of Mount St Helens after the 1980 eruption, so too will this landscape recover. It was really quite magical to be running through it.
On the edge of the burn. Still chasing that rainbow
Mount Hood is known to the Multnomah tribe as Wy'east, and like Mount St Helens is prominent in the mythology of the region. In one legend, Wy'east was one of two sons of the Great Spirit Sahale who became entangled in a love triangle over the beautiful maiden Loowit. In their battle over her, the brothers burned forests and villages before Sahale became enraged, killed them all and then, in his grief, erected mountain peaks in honour of the star-crossed lovers. Loowit became Mount St Helens and Wy'east, being the proudest of the brothers, became the tall and imposing Mount Hood. Making the full journey around these volcanoes demands a great respect for their wildness, and seems like a fitting way to honour these indigenous legends. If it was easy, the journey would not be as meaningful. More than 8 hours into our day at this point, we were all growing tired - but we continued to move forward. Every time I started to falter, I reminded myself how lucky I was to be able to do something like this, and took a moment to look around and take it all in: Beautiful landscapes. Incredible single track trail. A volcano. A rainbow. Strong, inspiring, supportive women (otherwise known as unicorns). A recipe for an amazing experience.
Partly burned out, but still thriving. A good metaphor for this point in the day.
As we made our way around the western side of the mountain, we moved in and out of more meadows, river crossings, and steep switchback sections of trail. We had one unfortunate incident where we got a bit carried away running down a fun series of switchbacks for a few kilometres - before realizing that we were heading in the wrong direction, and having to turn around and climb back up until we regained the Timberline trail. We also followed a sign at one trail junction that said "PCT to Timberline Lodge" - we knew that Timberline coincided with the PCT for several miles near the end of our day, so thought this was correct, but soon realized that we were headed on a wider loop out to the west than we had been expecting. Right general direction, just a few "bonus miles" (!). These were our only two mistakes of the day, though, and neither set us back very far. We got back on our intended course and started running down an incredibly long, fun section of somewhat technical forested trail (which was a bit worrisome at this point in the day, because we knew Timberline Lodge was at quite a high elevation - which meant we would eventually be climbing back up again). Just as the daylight was starting to fade, we wound our way down into the massive Zigzag canyon and up the other side. And, sure enough, this is where the climbing started again...and never seemed to end.
Zigzag Canyon. Photo: Tory Scholz
As we ascended switchback after switchback, we were slowed to a hike and my energy started to plummet. My muscles felt fine, but I was just so exhausted that I really started to struggle at this point. I think it was a combination of leftover fatigue from the race the week before, and not eating enough toward the end of the day. Reduced to silence except for the odd involuntary grunting/whimpering sounds that I was making as I trudged upward, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, and tried to stay positive. Huge shout out here to Tory, who saw what was happening and tried to distract me with stories, and Emily, who said simply at one point "right now I'm just grateful that it's not raining". We were all experiencing our own levels of low points at this stage, and yet we got each other through it. This is what I love about days like this, and about sharing these adventures with like-minded, supportive friends. I think that you need those low points to make the experience rich; they let you know what you are capable of, and just how much your mind can get your body through. It's like those burned out sections of trail: nature is tenacious, and so are we. In everyday life, we just don't get enough opportunities to find out how strong we really are.

We finally crested the last climb, and started to see the lights from the lodge in the distance. We spent the last 1-1.5 hours of our day in darkness, guided by the light of our headlamps. When we got to a sign that said "Timberline Lodge, 1 mile", I thought I was going to cry in happiness. Emily and I looked at each other and said in unison, "We can run a mile" - and so we did.

68 km, 3400 m of climbing, and 13+ hours after we set out from Timberline Lodge that morning, we burst through its doors to some surprised glances from patrons - muddy, wet, and grinning from ear to ear. All of the hardships of the last few hours slowly melted away as we changed into warm dry clothes, drank local craft beer, and swapped stories and laughs. What a day. Thank you, Wy'east, for welcoming a group of unicorns to honour you with our annual journey.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Running toward Healing

A month ago, August 19th at 10:30 in the morning, I held my hand gently on my dad's chest as he took his last breath. I will never forget that moment: me, my brother and mom clinging to each other in grief as we stood around his bed and felt him leave this world, his big personality and gentle soul peacefully escaping the wasted shell to which cancer had reduced his body. We all touched his face over and over, in numb disbelief despite knowing this moment was coming. And then we gathered our things and left the hospital, even though the staff told us we could stay as long as we wanted. The truth is, we had been saying goodbye for days; weeks, really. He was no longer there, in that room, in that shell. Not to us.

This is a difficult post to write. I've been trying to start it for a while, but every time I do, I get overwhelmingly sad and have to stop writing. But I know that in my toolbox, the two best tools I have for coping with stress and heartache are writing and, of course, running. And so, as hard as it sometimes is, I continue to do both.
La Route Verte (the Green Route), Sherbrooke QC
In the first few weeks after my dad's diagnosis, I ran almost every day, 5 k on the Route Verte bike trail along the St Francis river from the hospital to my parents' house. Those runs were part jogging, part walking, part crying - but they helped me settle my thoughts and emotions, as jumbled as they were, and I was thankful for that outlet to try to process what was happening. I ran on the day he died, a few hours after we returned from the hospital. I made it about half an hour before breaking down. I sat down on the shore of a little pond on the trails where my dad walked his dog every day and cried in huge, frantic sobs that made my whole body shake, thinking so many things all at once: It happened so fast. He was always so healthy. How can he be gone? I'll miss him so much. I continued to run in the week that followed, venturing into the mountains of the Eastern Townships of Quebec and spending long mornings exploring the rugged trails. Sometimes I cried a little; other times, I realized I went hours without thinking about the fact that he is gone. Such is the beauty of hard mountain running: it requires such a singular focus that it allows me the space to not be sad, for a while. A month later, I am coping but still feeling disoriented; anchorless - but I find that I feel most at peace when I am out on the trails. I sometimes worry that I am running away from my grief, but deep down I know that what I am really doing is running toward healing. One step, one trail, one mountain at a time. 
Pic de l'Ours (Bear Peak), Quebec
The morning my mom called to tell me that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer - June 29th - I was on a hike/run with two of my friends, a loop up Mount Brunswick, across part of the Howe Sound Crest Trail, and up and down Mount Harvey. My phone rang literally the minute I summited Harvey. I sat on a rock on top of a mountain, overlooking the bright blue sound dotted with islands, and listened as mom told me that my dad had maybe two months to live, and that he might go any minute. She sounded exhausted and in shock, but strong, amazingly. I somehow made it down that mountain, although I don't really remember it happening. Two days later, back in Quebec where my dad was now living in the hospital, I showed him a few pictures from that run, and he said, "Wow. How beautiful."
Mt Harvey, BC
My dad has always been my biggest champion in everything I do, including my running. An avid hiker and traveller himself, he loved seeing pictures of my mountain running adventures. In my road running days, my parents came to countless races to support me. They travelled with me to Toronto when I ran the marathon there, and entertained themselves (and me) by riding the subway along the course as I was running and popping up in random locations to cheer me on. My dad once drove me and my mom all the way to southern New Hampshire for a 10k race; it was nearly 6 hours of driving, and I ran for 45 minutes. This past July, after 2 weeks of spending every day at the hospital with him, I took a day to go to Quebec City to run a 25k race up and over Mont Ste. Anne. I finished the race muddy, soaking wet, and exhausted - but also rejuvenated, and calmer than I had been in weeks. I got back in time to visit with my dad that evening. My brother said "That's kind of crazy", and dad said simply, "Not for Tara". He understood me. He was proud of me. And we were so similar in so many ways. I know now that I never fully appreciated what a wonderful gift that was.
Like father, like daughter:
Last fall, independently posing for a picture while holding a maple leaf :)
There are two things about the way this has unfolded that give me a small amount of comfort. I think that I received the news about his diagnosis when I was on top of a mountain - in my happy place - for a reason: to be reminded that even in the midst of all the sadness, and pain, and unfairness of cancer, there is still so much beauty in this world. My dad would have wanted me to see that. The other thing that happened was on the day he died, when I was sitting by that pond, buried in grief: I looked up for a minute and the sunlight suddenly caught the water in such a way that it was filled, absolutely filled, with those little sparkles, millions of them dancing across the surface. It only lasted for a few moments. 

I think peace will slowly come to me like this, in small pieces of beauty that fill my heart until it is repaired. And I think that as long as I am noticing these things, then I am doing ok.

Two days after he died, I was scheduled to be running the Squamish 50k. I had been excited about the race, and had worked hard to get to that start line after coming back from a systemic injury that was, in a complex way, related to my own brush with cancer 2 years ago. I know that I am one of the "lucky" ones, as far as this disease goes - and I am grateful for that, every day. My dad's reaction when he was diagnosed and in the same day admitted to palliative care was not to rail against the unfairness of it all, but instead to reflect on how great his 78 years on earth have been. Gratitude. I learned it from him. And so, I have decided to run a different 50k - Whistler Alpine Meadows - next weekend. On race day it will have been 5 weeks since he left us, and one month since we buried his ashes. The race is going to be extremely challenging, and extremely beautiful, and I'll probably cry my way through parts of it - but I will run every step of it mindfully, to honour my dad in the best way I know how, which is to be the person he taught me to be. Someone who lives life to the fullest, chases goals, doesn't take the easy road, and enjoys the simple things like spending time immersed in natural beauty. 

That's where my dad is now, to me. He is in the way the trees sway in the breeze, the way the rocks glisten when they're wet with rain, the way the water sparkles in the sunlight. He is with me, always, reminding me of where I came from, and where and who I want to be.
"Don't grieve. Everything you lose comes round in another form." - Rumi

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 leaving one of the aid stations...
clearly, having  no fun at all. Photo: Geoff Large
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