The fact that I hadn’t actually started training for this until the beginning of April was a BIG mistake. I did some base-building averaging around 40-60km/week since the start of 2015 but in no way did that prepare me for July. With momentum high from the previous Nike 15k race, I was determined that I could “catch-up” on my training plan. Here’s a spreadsheet on what I was supposed to follow, I was a naughty girl and cut it short and started at week 12.
The hardest thing about training for an ultra is that you’ll never know if you can finish the distance until race day. It’s not recommended to run the full length since they are just too long and will force the body to be beat up and not provide adequate recovery time and training leading to the race. Thus, the best way to prepare is to include one long run 50-60% of the total distance on similar terrain. Training for the distance wasn’t the most difficult part, it was the terrain.
I live in Markham, and if you aren’t too familiar, a quick search on Google satellite shows the topography to be nice and flat. A big no-no when preparing for a mountain ultra like the North Face Endurance Challenge in Collingwood spanning across the Blue Mountains with elevation gains in excess of 1500m. 😮
The total race distance was 81.4km from the top of escarpments to the bottom of the valleys. The weather report on July 18th (race day) was expected to be a sunny 32C, I was going to run on the hottest day of the year. The day before, I checked into the Blue Mountain resort at the Mosaic Boutique Suites and packed the car full of race foods like energy bars, coconut water, cookies, rice crackers, V8 juice, and dried fruit.
On race day, I woke up at 3AM too excited to wait for the alarm. I did my morning ritual of shower and pre-race smoothie of coconut water, blueberries, and banana. I was ready to start at 4:30AM and had some nice conversation with fellow ultrarunners to ease the nerves.
The atmosphere was unlike any other. It was my first ultramarathon and wasn’t expecting such a small close knit group. Usually when I compete in shorter distances, there are TONS of people at the race, probably in the tens of thousands. However, in the world of ultras, you’re lucky if there’s a few hundred people sign up. Of course-not many people are crazy enough to sign up for these races! I really liked the ‘underground’ sort of community that a smaller group gave.
It was 5AM and we were off! What I learned from my previous race is that it’s better to start off slowly than to go too quickly too soon. Since this was going to be a day-long race, I had to conserve as much energy as possible to avoid over fatigue. The first 10km of the race is known as “The Grind”, in this short distance, we were expected to climb over 800m of elevation. And boy, was it tough! Even walking the uphills was a struggle… the uphill grade must have been at least 20%.
For most of the race I was walking all the uphills and running all the downhills. When faced with flat ground, I followed the strategy of walking 5 minutes and running 25 minutes. Generally this technique worked pretty well. I was wearing pretty good foot wear and overall very satisfied with my Saucony Stratos. I have my previous ballet training to thank for giving me iron toes back when I was en pointe. What hurt the most was going downhill near the end of the race when the front of my big toe kept banging to the front of my shoe. All in all, I’m pleased that I had no missing toenails, just a few bruised ones!
The course consists of two loops starting from the Blue Mountain Resort through the entire length of Bruce trail. The terrain ranged from dirt road, single track, asphalt, rocky terrain, and the dreaded (slippery) Cascadian stairs. It was a very humid and hot day but I was lucky to be covered by lush overgrowth for half of the race.
The scenery was impeccable. Even though I was running more than twice of what I usually put in during my long runs, the day didn’t feel so ‘long’ after all. I loved the serene environment while I was chugging along the forest trails. The sound of flowing streams mixed with my foot steps on the soft ground was such a stress relief. I even managed to meet a group of runners and ran with them for a portion of the race before, George met to pace me at the half way point.
The last 30km of the race really tested how bad I wanted to finish it. I was drawing close to the cutoff time and I was exhausted. The morning was free of any aches, but in the afternoon, my body caught up to me and that’s when I started feeling how banged up I was. Nevertheless, I decided to stop obsessing over my Garmin and just focussed on putting one foot in front of another. I kept reminding myself that I signed up to finish, not to DNF. I was going to start full time work in August and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to dedicate as much time into training for another ultra. It was now or never.
The last 4 hours of the race seemed like a blur, a dream even. Perhaps it’s true in times of extreme fatigue, the body tries to naturally ‘sedate’ your mind to ease the journey. And a journey it was. I like to describe the last stretch as a ‘light at the end of tunnel”. What I remember mostly was running aimlessly in the woods. Each tree looked identical. After what felt like an eternity I saw an open area just in front of me. This must be it! I’m close to finishing! With the last of my energy reserves I ran (or jogged) down the familiar paved asphalt towards the finish line. The feeling was surreal.
I was greeted by the event staff at 7:31PM and handed the medal I worked so hard for. I’m officially an ultra-runner!
Looking back at this experience, I would have changed MANY things. I would have trained earlier, ran on higher elevations, signed up for shorter ultras…. But that was history. Although, I didn’t meet my goal time, finishing is all the matters. Will I be doing another ultra next year? Most likely!