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.

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