Courmayeur–Champex-Lac–Chamonix


It’s been difficult to decide how to write a race report for CCC. On one hand the event is so amazing I don’t know how I could even do it justice through words. On the other, what came out of me on that day brought so much disappointment that it’s still hard to wrap my head around it. I don’t want to dwell on the bad and I hate excuses but I also feel that my memories of the good are clouded by the tug-of-war going on between my head and my heart for many of those hours. I could say something expected like “the tough days are when you learn the most about yourself” but that’s not the case. This wasn’t a test of my character or anything deep like that – it was simply an instance where shit goes wrong and you suck it up and deal with it through the end.

The only surprise of the day was that I couldn’t physically get what I expected out of myself. I shouldn’t be shocked based on how my body was feeling in the month leading up to the race. I managed to convince myself that by running less than half of my planned miles I would go into this race rested. That by avoiding hills my legs would be fresh for the mountains. And that by avoiding speedwork, well heck, I would just be fine. Stop stressing over the training and trust your body and your heart. Even after the race I believe all of that to be true. I needed my hip and pelvis to be “good enough” to race 101k and in my mind I was there. I knew that after the race I would pay dearly but honestly thought that I could race a solid effort and ignore the pain which is one of my strengths (or is that really a weakness?) to produce a performance I was proud of. So when my body responded the way it did I felt betrayed.

But that’s already too much whining. We all know what it feels like to be let down. Even if everything would’ve felt perfect on race day I still think I would’ve been humbled by those mountains. So let’s get out of my head and move on to the wonderful event that is Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc and all of its grand races. Many people have questions about this race so I will try to make this an informative race report.

Mandatory Gear

One thing that stands apart with the UTMB races is the extensive list of required gear. Luckily I was able to bounce my questions off race veteran Zach to see just how strict they are with the specifics of the gear. Turns out the answer is “very”. For example I had to buy 2 new torches (I now own FIVE) because the three I had are rechargeable. The requirement is for 2 torches with replacement batteries. I’m glad Zach gave me the heads up on that one because Amanda was turned away at gear check for that very reason (she was then also turned away because her emergency blanket was 1 inch short. 1 inch. Have you see the size of this girl? Way smaller than the average racer. So yes, they’re that strict). Another Zach tip – for waterproof gloves use medical gloves. The vinyl gloves were way lighter and took up much less space!

Once I had the required gear sorted it fit easily and comfortably into my new Ultimate Direction Hardrocker vest.You arrive at packet pickup with your full pack and at the first station they check your passport and print out the list of required gear with a random selection of 4 items that you need to show. From there, airport security style, you grab a bin to remove your 4 selected items for the next checkpoint. Mine were waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, long tights, and cell phone. Once you clear that checkpoint you retrieve your bib along with a 2nd chip. At the following station a volunteer attaches that 2nd chip to your pack. There is no switching packs during the race. Thanks to the excellent organization of this race I breezed right on through the registration process. However that was not the final stage of my gear check which I will get to in the next section.

Start Line

The start line is as epic as the videos portray. There is so much energy and excitement it’s tough to stay calm! For the CCC we are bussed to our start line in Courmayeur, Italy – another beautiful town! We were greeted with sunshine and mild temps – a welcome change to what was predicted for that morning. With over 2100 starters in this race they send you off in waves. I’ve heard stories about people getting into their corral over an hour before the start because of the crowding. Even in the elite corral it was difficult to get a good spot so it does pay to get into your corral early. While waiting in the corral 3 officials came to me for another gear check – this time I had to remove my pack and pull out all of my gear on the list to show them before they placed a sticker on my bib confirming my check. This was a random selection check and I of course had no issues with it, but I must admit that having to re-pack everything at the start line ratcheted up my anxiety a bit.

With fellow Syracuse runner Scott English in Courmayeur

Once we’re set free it’s an exciting run through the town before hitting the trails for our first climb of the day. The town is a steady stream of cheers and cowbells, and once we moved past the crowds I noticed…silence. Well – heavy breathing – but everyone was quietly focused on the task at hand as we were already climbing and would be without a break for the first 6 miles. There is no thinning out during the first climb to Tete de la Tronche. Once you hit the single track you climb at the pace that is set by those ahead of and behind you.

Those views though…

Before I summit the first climb, let me tell you about how amazing the scenery is. It’s a lot to handle really – you’re focused on your footing, what’s going on in front of you, yet you can’t help but look around to soak in some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. Am I really here? We then had some descending to conquer before a nice long stretch along the ridgeline which offered more breathtaking views as the helicopter was buzzing low to capture footage of the runners along this exposed stretch. We made our way down to the Arnouvaz aid station before heading out onto our second climb into Switzerland to the summit of Grand Col Ferret. The amazing views continued along this relentless climb. Partway up the climb a French runner had stepped off the trail and was visibly crying. I stopped to see if she needed anything (newsflash: by this time I already knew my day wasn’t going to shake out). I really just wanted to give her a hug – I was feeling her pain for sure.


Let’s not forget the weather.

About ¾ of the way up the climb those stunning views abruptly ended when we were suddenly socked in by a heavy fog. The temperatures plummeted and I went from hot to frozen in an instant. I remembered the warnings about putting on your gear as soon as this happened but I knew I had to be close to the summit. Upon arrival it was so incredibly windy and you could only see feet in front of you. There were medical stations at the top of each climb and this one offered a volunteer who was holding our gear as we struggled to put on jackets in those whipping winds. After what felt like minutes wrestling my jacket into submission I then fumbled to put gloves on my already frozen fingers before starting the descent. It would take a few miles before I got feeling back into my fingers. That was my first taste in how rapidly the weather would change throughout that course.


Compared to the UTMB runners I’d say we had it super-easy. But I can’t even count the number of times my arm warmers went up and down, and my jacket came off then back on. Into the later, pouring rain hours I would plan exactly what wardrobe changes I would make coming into the next aid station only to show up feeling indifferent, shrugging my shoulders, and pushing on wearing the exact same thing.

An hour before our start a text was sent letting us know that there would be a weather-related course change. For our final climb we would not be going all the way to the peak in Chamonix. I’m not ashamed to admit that with the day I was having I was not at all disappointed with the altered course.

Crew

There is plenty of aid stations and they’re very well stocked. Yes it’s true – there is an abundance of cheese and sausage at the aid stations. I guess people eat it?!?! I was happy to see bananas and watermelon to supplement my stash of food. I heard not-so-great things about the shuttles that transport your crew to the 3 stops where they are allowed to assist you so I was neither shocked nor upset when I arrived at Champex-Lac and couldn’t find Jeremy or Lauren. I looked around for a bit (it was a very busy station), casually filled my bottles, and then realized it was time to move on. It was 17k up and over the next climb where I would hopefully see Jeremy to replenish my Skratch drinks and nutrition needs.

Sure enough they were ready for me at the next stop as a crew member is allowed into the tent 10 minutes prior to your runner’s arrival. Jeremy rocked it – all of my gear was at the ready and he was full of positivity. It was a really lonely day out there so it was great to just see and talk to someone I knew! Even though the next stop was only 11k further (but up and over another climb) they planned to be there for me just in case. It was a complete downpour and only one person was allowed in the tent which meant Lauren had to wait outside. I definitely had some moments of guilt for what they were enduring for me. It is way easier to run in bad weather than it is to crew. I think I even told him they didn’t need to go to the finish line for me which he of course brushed off as nonsense. It’s not an easy race to crew when you have to navigate long bus rides. I’m pretty damn lucky to have had them there!

Ode to the Poles

I was never keen on the idea of using poles in a “running” race. Even after I broke down and bought them it was still struggle to train with them. I ended up relying on them way more than I ever could’ve imagined. They served me more as crutches – especially on those downhills. I’m not sure if I would’ve finished without them. If I had it would’ve tacked on a few more hours. I never want to use them again. At least I hope I never have to rely on them in that way again. But now I do see and respect their purpose. Especially at a race like CCC. Thank you Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles for carrying my unstable a$$ all around those mountains, and for taking a beating when I was really angry about my dependency upon you. After all that you only left 2 small bruises on my hands 😁

Always Have a Plan B

As I slogged my way up that first mountain my hope was already tumbling backwards behind me. Coming to terms with my Plan B was the best decision I could make – enjoy the experience and finish the race. Once you let go of your expectations (which was by far my toughest obstacle of the day) it frees your mind to focus and fully commit to your backup plan. Well look at that, maybe I did learn something from this race after all!

Merci Beaucoup!

My deepest gratitude goes to Jeremy and Lauren. Not only did they face some last-minute obstacles just to make it to France, but it’s a huge trip and time commitment for little ol’ me. I am humbled to have friends that are willing to give themselves so selflessly to my endeavors. I had door-to-door service before and after the race because of them. They walked 4 miles from Chamonix to my hotel in the middle of the night to retrieve the car and have it waiting for me at the finish line. Seeing them along the course gave me the push I needed. I will always be grateful that they were there for me in such a big way.

Another huge thank you goes to Altra. Everyone on that team is always looking out for me to make sure I have everything I need. My brand-spanking-new pretty blue King MT’s were sadly caked in mud (and manure?) by the end of the race but who cares what your shoes look like when they perform like champs! And thank you to the Altra France contingent for their hospitality.
Thank you Muir Energy for keeping me stocked in the cleanest and tastiest fuel for tackling mountains. I have 4 words: Passon Fruit. Pineapple. Banana. Seriously. There are many delicious flavors and I enjoy them all but I can’t get enough of that tropical cocktail.

Thank you Skratch Labs for keeping my electrolytes in check with flavors I crave all day long.

And many many thanks to each and every one of you who reached out to me in multiple ways throughout this trip. I was feeling the love for sure!

Now it’s time for a little break time off while I work out some issues. Only time will tell what’s next on my schedule but I can guarantee that I am hungry to get back out there and run the world!

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TNF ECS Ontario – What racing 50 miles feels like

I’m not the fastest learner – mainly because I’m stubborn, impatient, impulsive, the list goes on. This year will be my 4th racing ultras – my first year fully committing to them – and I’m proud to say that I finally felt like I raced 50 miles properly. I’ll use the term “properly” loosely. It was far from perfect. Mistakes were made. I like a healthy dose of mistakes. I had a plan – it wasn’t much of a plan – but I fought myself to stick with it. And by golly it worked! I didn’t have any rough patches so to speak. Little bumps on the trail due to mistakes but my day was going so well that I wasn’t going to let them ruin my good time. It was a confidence boost to know that I can control myself, and to learn that patience can pay off. Look at me evolving and stuff 😉

My drive took a little longer than planned so I arrived 2 hours later than I wanted to. Once you get to Blue Mountain Village all of that stress melts away. It’s really a unique place with such a great vibe. It’s always bustling with activity but at the same time very chill. I was immediately reminded of why I came back to race here. I picked up my packet and was happy to drive a mere ½ mile to my place. I never stay close to race sites but because I love the village and we had a 5 am start I went for it. It was a smart decision but also made me wish I was spending more than 1 day there.

I prepped my nutrition, hydration and my drop bag before lounging on my hammock to eat my curry while listening to the live band play in the village. We received an email that due to excessive mud on the course they had to make an aid station change which affected how many times you could access your drop bag. This changed my fueling plans but I didn’t even care. This was a stress-free evening in a relaxing place. I was in a zone that I’m normally not in before a race. It was only when I snuggled into my compression boots and reviewed the course one last time that I started to get nervous. I was really hungry for this race. I wanted a win in a bad way. I’m really struggling with not racing as much and after my disappointment at Broken Arrow I felt like a ticking time bomb. One thing I was confident in was how hard I would fight for this race. After racing the 50k last year I was familiar with the trails – I just needed to get out there and do my thing.


My “not much of a race plan”: 10 mile training run, 40 mile race. Sounds simple enough but not when you’re me. Which is why I kept it so simple – I just had to focus on those first 10 miles. They are always the most difficult for me to reign in. It was nice and cool pre-sunrise but super-humid. I lined up with Anne Bouchard and was thrilled to see her again. I asked her about CCC – she said she absolutely loved it and wants to go back. That added to my excitement and I told her I couldn’t wait to chat about it. Then…we were off! Running across the base of the slope in the dark it was already muddier than I expected. Within the first ½ mile a guy in front of me went down hard. It’s just a 10 mile training run – don’t get caught up in silliness.


As we hit The Grind trail the leaders went off ahead and I was left leading a string of guys. This is never a good spot for me because for whatever reason I feel an obligation to “pull” which means I work hard. After about a mile of this I realized I wasn’t sticking to my plan so I backed off on the climbs. This didn’t help because they simply fell into my pace. So then I started to hike the steep parts and that did the trick. The line of chasers passed me and I was able to focus on my own race again. You hit the first aid station at mile 4 before climbing the ladder over the fence into the Scenic Caves property for 3.5 miles of cross country ski trails. Smooth, vegan-buttery, rolling S-turns and the desire to open it up was strong. I kept repeating “training run” in my head and even said it out loud a time or two. I was determined to stick to this as uneasy as it made me. I was at mile 5 and my mind was already going faster than my legs. What if I screw this whole race up by going out too easy? What if I’m passed on this 10 mile training run and I can never catch back up? I was a skeptic for sure.


At the 2nd aid station I was able to toss my headlamp into my drop bag and then it’s onto fun single track and smile-inducing downhill running. It was mile 7 and I was itching to go. TRAINING RUN! Grrr!! I surely thought I was going to explode. I finally hit mile 10 and I felt unleashed! I saw one of the photographers and he informed me that I was 10th overall. Great! Time to start racing. This is also a fast section of the course and it wasn’t long before I passed my first male. At around mile 15 we turn onto a long road climb and I could already see 3 more guys way up ahead of me. I was feeling strong and thought to myself “this is going to be fun.” At the mile 20 aid station I preemptively consumed my Coke-nana cocktail to prime the engine for loop 2. I had been fueling on Muir Energy and Beetums and they were going down great. I could eat the Muir Energy Passion Fruit Pineapple Banana all day – it’s like a tropical beach party in my mouth!


The last few miles of the loop are the toughest to me. You get some great downhills but then you keep turning right to climb back up another ski slope. It takes the wind out of your sails but it also felt easier than last year which was a plus. There was also a really muddy steep climb and I couldn’t help but think how much worse it was going to be on the 2nd loop. My goal was to finish the first loop under 4 hours with a nice cushion, and I was going to reach that goal, but the muddy sections on the 2nd loop were going to be a lot slower the second time around after both the 50 mile and 50k runners have passed through. Once you exit the Cascade trail you have that long, steep descent to the bottom of the ski slope with a gorgeous view of the Georgian Bay. It’s a quad-burner for sure but so much fun! I remembered that this was how I busted my hand a week prior so I shouldn’t do anything stupid. But this slope is all grass and no rocks so why hold back? 🙂

I arrived at the aid station to start loop 2 and I was thrilled with how great I was feeling. I even thought to myself “I can’t believe I’m halfway done already!” That was a new feeling for a 50 miler… It wasn’t long before I started catching 50k runners and it felt good to see and pass people. Around mile 29 I passed a lady who was really supportive as I went by. She also told me that the 2nd and 3rd males were about 15 minutes ahead maximum. I knew I had been picking guys off but I hadn’t been counting. This lit another fire in me and I was eager to try to catch some more! The whole day I was never given any information about the females behind me. I wasn’t expecting it. And I kind of like it that way. I always prefer racing scared and it also forces me to race the clock.


My original plan was to swap out my bottles before the end of loop 1 but with the aid station change we weren’t seeing our drop bags until after the 50k mark. It was already pretty hot and I was drinking a lot but I was extremely lucky that Skratch Labs was a sponsor of the race so their product was on the course! When it comes to electrolyte drinks I won’t touch anything else unless it’s dire so I was thrilled to have my drink of choice on race day. Because of this I made the decision while racing that I would ditch my vest for my handheld at the 50k mark instead of swapping bottles. There were plenty of aid stations and plenty of Skratch being served so I would simply refill my handheld with water through the final aid stations. I decided to race in a new pair of Altra shorts (coming soon…) which have plenty of stash space along the waistband. I was able to shove all of my fuel for the final 20 miles in my waistband comfortably.


Miles were clicking off quick and easy. I had a positive attitude, plenty of energy, and was enjoying every minute of it. I know it sounds cliché to go on about my shoes but my love for the Altra King MT’s grew even stronger at this race. Through the muddy sections and on technical descents & climbs I was making it look easy as I passed runners who were slipping and sliding. It is crazy to me that I stayed upright with my aggressive running through these sections. The mud was so thick at spots people were commenting about losing shoes. The velcro strap on the King MT’s made my foot feel completely secure as the mud was fighting to rip them off my feet. In the last miles there was one particular technical descent that I enjoyed so much the first round I couldn’t wait to get back to it for the 2nd attack. As I was nearing this section I came upon who runner who let me pass but then hopped on behind me. I was really excited to finally have a buddy to run with. Then we turned onto that trail and I let loose – never heard or saw him again. There’s no better feeling than having confidence in your shoes so that you can have some fun bombing down slick rocky trails!

I mentioned that I made a few minor mistakes throughout the day but the biggest one was at the last aid station with about 5 miles to go. I grabbed some Skratch, Coke, water over the head and was off. My handheld was about half-full with water so I didn’t bother to refill. I don’t know why I didn’t take the time to top off – I had a few punchy climbs to tackle totally exposed in the hot baking sun. I brushed it off as 5 little miles when I’m feeling strong but never err on the side of too little hydration on a hot day. That half bottle was gone before I even got to those climbs. It was embarrassing – I was so thirsty that when I got to the volunteers stationed at the top of the descent with 1 mile to go I saw a jug of water and asked if I could have some. It was clearly the water they were drinking and as the words were coming out of my mouth I felt really stupid for asking. The kid confirmed that with the look he gave me and said “you literally have just over a km to go…” Roger that. This was the best part of the race – time to finish this thing. If screwing up my hydration in the last few miles was the worst mistake of my day I consider that a good day. I got to the bottom of the descent, looked at my watch to see 8:00, and said “aw man” out loud. Had it not been for a few too many pit stops (PSA: Beetums are great but beets+running…be careful is all I’m saying) I could’ve made it under 8:00. Crossing the finish line all I wanted was a drink. This picture shows it.


Instead I was handed an empty water bottle and the photographer asked if he could get some pictures. Okay, smile again so you can get some damn water.


Then 2 angels appeared – they were Skratch reps – one handed me an ice-cold wet washcloth and the other an ice-filled bottle of Skratch! My day was made. I stuck around at the finish line to see my friend Karen Holland finish 2nd – I was so excited to see her come across and any time I’m racing with her I know I have to be on my game! 3rd overall was Cassie Smith who was super-close to catching me at the 50k last year. They train together, are phenomenal athletes, and super-cool women. I couldn’t have asked for a better podium 🙂


And now I take a break from racing to focus on CCC. I can only hope that I go into that race with the same hunger, patience, and strength I had on this race day!

Time – 8:01:59
1st Overall Female 3
3rd Overall Finisher

Ultra Race of Champions – Skylark Edition

The Plan
My main goal was simply to finish. I won’t say I didn’t want a podium spot but I still felt the sting of my DNF at Bandera so most important to me was finishing my first 100k. Normally I set time goals throughout my races but since this was a new course I had no data from which to formulate my goals. This was a “go out and run” kind of race and I welcomed this lax mindset – I took a lot of pressure off myself. I knew who my main competitors were, and relying on my race style thought I would be racing in 2nd place most of the day before getting caught (but hopefully not getting caught).

Part 1 – Whetstone (miles 1-29)
6.8 miles to the first aid station consisted of gradual climbing on a mix of paved and gravel/dirt roads. It was a great start to the race. There was no need to jockey for position to get onto the single track, and it provided the perfect warm-up for the legs. After the aid station it was onto single track and I was excited for the trails.

The next 8 miles contained rolling terrain with some technical spots and some nice climbs to prepare you for the day ahead. The miles were still ticking off quickly and I was feeling great. The course was exceptionally marked – I don’t think they could’ve done a better job. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t go off course around mile 15. There was an intersection, and a flag to mark the intersection, but instead of looking for the flag on the turn I bombed straight through it and ran a good 90 seconds before realizing I didn’t see any “confidence markers”. I stopped and turned around to look for the guy who had been close behind me. He wasn’t there. So back I went and sure enough there was the flag on the trail I was supposed to turn on. Of course I panicked for the time I just lost with that error but I reminded myself that it was very early in the day. This was a theme I repeated to myself multiple times throughout the race. From there we had a 3 mile descent to the lowest point of the course where we would turn around and retrace our steps 11 miles back to the 1st aid station. This was a very tight spot for 2-way traffic but it was exciting to see the race leaders coming through. Mocko and Jorge were running together chatting like they were out on a training run. Soon after was a steady stream of men taking chase. Amanda was making her way up – all smiles and looking strong.

It wasn’t long on my return trip before I saw Emily, and then Amy. Damn. They were close. Cue panic again along with the realization that I wasn’t even 1/3 through the race. I started playing the game in my head “how many miles can I make it before I’m caught”. I know this is a dumb game to play but it’s my way of setting mini-goals 😉 It must’ve messed with my mind because during the entire climb I was struggling. My legs felt weak and I was feeling overheated and dizzy on the steep climbs however I wasn’t sweating and I had goose bumps. This can’t be good. I thought maybe I should cut back on the effort but also realized how little effort I was already putting out. It was all very confusing. My hands and fingers were really swollen. I couldn’t remember if that meant I had too much salt or too much water. How could I have too much of either? I remember wishing Jay was here so he could tell me which it was and I could fix it. I sustained several cuts on my legs through this section and I was sticky with blood. My left knee cap was covered in blood and every time I put my hands on my legs to power hike I was making it worse. The cut wasn’t bad at all – it just bled a lot. I was chalking this section up to being the worst part of my day, and it was still so early. Let me just make it to mile 30 before I’m caught.

Part 2 – Those damn jagged rocks (miles 30-53)
I was elated when Whetstone was behind me and happy to be back on the roads for the next 4 miles so I could recover. We made our way onto the Skylark property and had to climb ever-so-close to the finish chute. That was a tease. It was nice to run on some open grass fields as we toured the beautiful property on our way back out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway headed to Bald Mountain. Once we arrived it was back onto the trails. What I remember most about this section was how painfully slow I was going. There wasn’t a whole lot of elevation change but the trails were plastered with sharp rocks that were looking for any opportunity to end your race. I normally enjoy this kind of challenge but wasn’t in the mood for taking risks, again saying that it’s way too early in the race. Eye on the prize – finish. This led me to hike a lot of this section. I hiked, and I felt terrible for hiking. In hindsight it was smart but it still hurt my ego. This was definitely where I would be passed.

I don’t recall much more of that section. I remember making our way down to some falls before another steep climb out of that valley. But the rest is a blur. Mentally I was focused on making it to the aid station at mile 53. That was where I would grab my bottle of go-go juice for that last 10.5 mile push to the finish.

Part 3 – Shaking my fist at Bald Mountain (miles 54-finish)
I was pumped to arrive at AS8 where I was greeted by the kind couple who I met before the start. They came down from CT to support their son and they were cheering for me at every opportunity. I asked how their son was doing and they told me he was doing great – and actually wasn’t that far behind me along with the next female. If they said anything else after that I didn’t hear it – my mind was fixated. I didn’t ask how far back she was – I never asked where she was all day because that’s one mental game I don’t like to play. I filled one bottle, swapped the other, and said my goodbyes. It was time to work. The aid station volunteer told me it was 6.4 miles to the next aid station after climbing Mt Bald. I audibly whimpered.

But I had a new fire in me. I made it 54 miles and I did not want to lose my position this late in the race. The next few miles turned out to be my favorite of the race. I don’t know how many times we crossed streams – it had to be at least 6. Many of them were knee deep or higher. Sure they slowed you down but the cold rushing water felt great on the legs and it also washed off the blood from multiple cuts. I knew that if I could maintain this momentum and determination I could hold 2nd place to the finish.

And then I hit Bald Mountain. Or rather Bald Mountain hit me. The climb was steep and never-ending, and it was quickly sapping whatever I had left in the tank. I started to get dizzy and wobbly on that narrow single-track and all I could think was “if I fall down this mountain I will have to climb it again. I do not want to climb this again.” And so I focused. My hamstrings clocked out for the day. Like “hey, we know we have to stick around for the rest of the day but don’t expect us to do any work.” Not only did Bald Mountain drain the energy out of me, but it also drained my watch. No more data to rely on.

After what felt like an hour I made it to the summit and that final aid station. I grabbed a cup of coke, a handful of pretzels because I was craving salt, and half-laid on the table for support while my bottle was filled. 4.2 miles to go. Half of this was road. “I got this” I told myself. I kept checking my watch on the road – I wanted to keep tabs on the distance I had left and what my pace was. I knew my watch was dead yet I kept looking at it hoping it would give me some reassurance. I also kept looking back – just in case.

Turning onto the Skylark property was such a relief. Just one more steep climb to the finish line. I said “time to light that last match” and then laughed maniacally at myself because there were no more matches. As I made my way up the S-turns a young boy at the top of the hill was shouting down at me “finish strong! C’mon – run strong to the finish!” It was adorable and I appreciated his enthusiasm and support, but I also wanted to yell back “this is my strong – you’re looking at it. Pathetic I know, but it’s all I got.”

Halfway up the climb I passed some of the male finishers who were at their cars cheering me up the climb. Then I saw Amanda hobbling back down from the finish. I was happy to stop and congratulate her on my way up. Yep, that was my finish – stop and have a quick chat. One more turn and the finish line was finally in sight. I crossed the line and Francesca asked if she could take my picture. So I made one last effort of the day – to look like I was feeling great. Then I proceeded to the bench where I collapsed between 2 other finishers. I thought to myself “I don’t think I’ve ever smelled this bad in my life” which kept me from sitting too long. I spared the 2 guys and quickly got up so I could start my hobble back down the hill to my car.

Photo: Francesca Conte

Epilogue
The course was tough. I definitely underestimated it in more ways than one. But then again so did many people as the web site claimed 7,202 feet of climbing while watches confirmed 12,000. But hey, who wants an easy ultra? We wouldn’t be doing this if it was easy. As with every race I have some takeaways to work on – it’s all part of the process (and the fun). Gill and Francesca created a challenging yet beautiful course and a well-run event. Their passion for this event is evident. I would definitely go back to give this course another go.

The Grub
As I wrote in my product review, Muir Energy was my fuel of choice for this race and it worked well for me. With the variety of flavors I never tired of them. Luckily I brought plenty of extra for my drops because I was finding that I had no appetite for solid foods and only wanted Muir. Since this product is working so well for me I am happy to announce that I have partnered with Muir Energy to fuel my future races! (insert shameless plug –> discount code for those who want to try it out –> LK10OFF) P.S. Passion Fruit Pineapple Banana is still my favorite!

As usual I relied on Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix for my electrolytes throughout the race. One error I made was not bringing any of my beloved Hyper Hydration. With the forecasted weather I didn’t think I would need it but I was wrong. I survived without it but I’m sure it would’ve helped me in those later stages of the race when the sun was beating down and my skin was a solid layer of salt.
The Gear
First I have to give a shout out to Henry Klugh of Inside Track. When my local running store basically told me “too bad” when I inquired about a rain shell I knew that I would have better luck at Inside Track in Harrisburg which was conveniently on the way. And that’s why I love small running stores – Henry went into the back, climbed the ladder, and went digging through boxes until he found his rain gear. He hooked me up with the perfect rain shell – lightweight, packs into its own pocket with a hand strap for easy carrying, and it matched my singlet, Altra Superiors, and even my drop boxes. Stylin’! Even though I didn’t end up needing it, Henry took great care of a fellow runner and eased my mind.

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The Altra Superiors are my go-to race shoe on the trail. Although the King MTs would’ve been great for the technical parts of this course, due to the amount of road and gravel they would’ve been too much. I’ll get to race in the King MTs soon enough – and I can’t wait to put those bad boys to the test! I also wore my trusty Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0. Enough pockets to store needed nutrition between drops, and it’s quick and easy to swap out my bottles or refill them when needed.

That’s why they call her Smash’em Basham! Photo: Jorge Maravilla

Finish Time: 11:54:06
Rank: 2nd Overall Female

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship

really wanted one of those days where everything just clicked. Don’t we all hope for that at every race? I didn’t have that – not even close – but I still had an amazing time at this race and as usual learned a lot! The course was everything people described it to be (almost). There was plenty of climbing which meant plenty of descending. The course was completely runnable. The views were absolutely stunning. The only thing I did not expect were the stairs – so many stairs! We talk about the stairs at Cayuga Trails 50 because they definitely stand out at that race. I couldn’t help but wonder if TNF 50 had an equal amount of them. They were wooden railroad ties, and not as steep as Cayuga, but there were so many of them. Up and down. I actually enjoyed them for most of the race – at least going up.

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Stairs and more stairs. Photo: TNFECS

It was a very chilly start for me – leaving the hotel at 3 am the air felt perfect but once we got to Marin Headlands it felt considerably cooler. Luckily The North Face supplies fire pits at all of their races. I squeezed into one and up against the guy next to me. He apologized and gave me room to get closer to the fire before I explained to him that I was invading his personal space to share his body heat, after which he thoughtfully obliged J I was regretting my decision to leave my arm sleeves back at the hotel. I was regretting my decision to skip buying a pair of throw-away gloves the day before. I arrived in CA on Thursday feeling like I was hit by a train. I had one day to pull it together and an easy detour to buy some gloves while I was out seemed too daunting a task. Everything would be better once the sun came up.

I felt oddly relaxed leading up to the start. I’ll chalk that up to feeling like I had properly prepared for this race. As the first wave was moved up to the start line I was looking for people I knew in the crowd to position myself with but it was dark and there was so much bustling energy I couldn’t figure out who was who. I was happy to see a fellow PA runner Jonathan Lantz next to me and it was comforting to know that he was going to be on the course with me today. Fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate Ellie Pell was with me as well ready to tackle her first 50 miler.

The start command was shouted and we shot off into the darkness. It wasn’t long before I noticed Magda in the lead group of women so I settled myself in behind that pack to get a feel for how things would go. The pace felt really comfortable for those opening miles even as we went up and over the first climb of the day. The lead group of us shot right past an early turn and luckily the field behind us started shouting. It felt like Black Rock 25k déjà vu as we corrected ourselves and quickly tried to get back in front of the pack. As we hit that first descent that’s where I realized my weakness – the lead women were bombing down the hill while I was trying to stay conservative – it was only mile 4! I was able to catch back up as we bypassed the first aid station but once we started that second climb they began to pull away and I thought it would be best to let them go. Time to run my race.

After dropping into Tennessee Valley I grabbed a cup of water and finally felt like I was settling in. However I was still really cold. It was difficult to eat because I had no feeling in my fingers, but what bothered me more was my legs – especially my hamstrings and quads – feeling cold, stiff, and tight. I found myself focusing on how much better I would feel if I would’ve worn capris. I kept telling myself that once the sun came up I would warm up and everything would feel better. It was still pitch black and sunrise seemed so far away. I was being a big baby and spending too much time thinking about things that were out of my control.

The best I felt all day was miles 10-15. I was sitting in 8th at the time but as we started the long climb to Cardiac my legs were again feeling so tight and weren’t cooperating. I knew I needed to grind out this 9 mile climb to McKennan Gulch where I could turn around and get some relief with the descent.

I had dropped 3 spots to 11th by the time we hit Cardiac and as simple as that math was I was so mentally frustrated I thought I was lucky if I was in top 20. Don’t ask me how I couldn’t pay attention to something so simple – it shows that my head was not in the game. The high point was seeing the lead men come through between Cardiac and McKennan. Zach Miller was out front moving like a freight train and I was super-excited to see him doing his thing. We both cheered for each other and he encouraged me by saying I was “up there” and then shouted “Go PA” as he made the turn heading down to Stinson Beach. Pennsylvania pride is strong! Existing in my negative head space I laughed to myself about his “up there” remark thinking he was trying to be nice.

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No more headlamp!

Frustration ran deeper as I hit the turnaround and made my way back down to Stinson Beach. This should’ve been a spot where I could open it up a bit and make up for that long uphill trudge. But I didn’t feel any better. Again my legs weren’t cooperating – the sun was up and I was still cold. I couldn’t shake this stiff feeling and my mental state worsened as I realized I was only halfway through the race feeling this terrible. There was no way I was going to give up but I started to have that talk with myself that this would be a race that I just need to finish.

On this out-and-back section I got to see some familiar faces which helped to elevate my mood. Karen Holland, Leah Maher who I only met that morning but is also from PA, and Anne Bouchard whom I raced with at TNF Toronto. Everyone was smiling and looking strong and I used that energy.

I was anticipating seeing my new friend Sandy who was crewing me at mile 29.4. I looked at my watch and realized I would be getting in right around the time I told him to be there and he had to take a shuttle which I know can be unreliable. I kept my hopes high that I would see him but on Friday I was already mentally preparing myself for the possibility of not getting my hydration and nutrition at mile 29.4. I rolled into the aid station at 9:06 and Sandy was nowhere to be found. I spent way too long standing around hoping he would magically appear – my backup plan thrown totally out the window due to my mental state. Finally I realized I had to move on so I slowly filled my bottles with water, grabbed a chunk of banana, and went on my way. Out of the way of the aid station I took another break to properly hack up all of the fluid in my lungs and clear my nose which I had only been half-successful doing while running. I looked up to see a poor, innocent bystander hiking towards me as she asked with concern “are you okay?” Sorry lady – no one deserved to see that.

It was a short run to the Cardiac aid station so I got my head together and realized that I would need another plan for electrolytes and nutrition now that I did not have my stash. I also had the attitude of “I’ll eat and drink whatever the f*ck I want because it doesn’t matter anymore.” I was a ray of sunshine. I arrived at Cardiac and grabbed a cup of Coke – yes Coke – and chased it with another chunk of banana because nothing else looked good to me and I remembered how bananas saved me in Switzerland last year. In a matter of minutes I felt a rush of life come into me. Huh. I guess it’s true what they say about that nasty, poisonous, rocket fuel. My whole damn attitude was turning around and at one point I actually yelled out “Coke” in an effort to praise my new-found savior. We dropped into Muir Woods and the beautiful redwoods. It was invigorating. We were now on the course with the 50k runners and I was definitely utilizing their energy. It was great to have people around and people to pass since I had been on my own for so long. Then I passed a familiar face – Team USA (duathlon) teammate Elizabeth Sponagle was tackling her first 50k and she looked great. I was so excited to see her as I was bounding down the trails with my new-found energy.

Not too long after that I heard a loud scream of “NOO!” up ahead and I see the guy that I had been running near for most of the day hiking back up the hill. He said we were on the wrong course but I was sure we were going the right way and told him the same even though I had stopped in fear that we had done something wrong. 50k runners confirmed for us that we were heading in the right direction so we started up again. He said to me “you’re my beacon of light – every time I think something is going wrong I turn around and see you there and know everything is okay.” I appreciated his kind words but laughed and told him that wasn’t the wisest plan. He doesn’t know my track record.

I recalled what one of my training partners texted me before the race: “Remember the race doesn’t start til 35!” I wanted to respond “It’s TNF50 – the race starts when the gun goes off” but I knew what he meant. And I remembered it now because at mile 35 I was finally starting to feel like I could race. Just at that moment I came across a spectator who told me I was in 11th. Who is this lunatic who doesn’t know how to count? I shouted back a very skeptical “what?!?” and he confirmed that the 10th place female passed through about 10 minutes ago. I said “well…damn!” and thanked him for this info which was the first I received regarding my placement the whole day. Into the next aid station I grabbed another cup of coke, another bite of banana, and a handful of Clif Bloks to ensure I was getting enough calories.

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The climb from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley

I was looking forward to reaching Tennessee Valley as I was sure Sandy would be there this time with my bottle of go-go juice to get me through the final 10k. I had one more climb to tackle before that point and then only one more left in the race after that. The downhills were starting to hurt more and more so once you reached the top of the climb you wanted to celebrate only to realize the real pain was about to set in. I could see Tennessee Valley and the huge crowd awaiting as I made my way down and worried about how I would find Sandy. As I approached the aid station my head was swiveling back and forth along the crowd that lined the road only to see Sandy standing right in front of me, arms waving with bottles in hand. I was so happy to see him and he spouted so much encouragement. I wanted to hug him but there was no time to linger. I gave him my vest and grabbed my hand-held before hitting the aid table for another piece of banana and heading up the final climb.

I caught up to Jonathan at the aid station and was really excited to be with him for this final push. As we were hiking this climb I turned around and was certain I saw another female with an orange bib. Panic set in. I held my position for over 20 miles and I wasn’t about to give it up in the last 10k. I turned around one more time to confirm she was there and it certainly looked as if she was. I made two decisions: 1) I would not turn around again for the rest of the race – I would go as hard as I could, and 2) I was going to get up this last climb through equal parts running and hiking. Being the obsessive counter that I am I started a 25 x 8-count cycle of running/hiking until I made it to the top. Another painful downhill but knowing it was the final descent I pushed a little harder. Again we could see far ahead on the course to where the trail leveled out so I focused on that spot – knowing that once I reached the bottom I could open it up.

With about 2.5 miles to go I could hear someone coming up on me. Then I could tell it was a female. Another moment of self-defeat as I thought “I can’t believe I let this happen”. As she pulled alongside me I looked over to see her bright-colored bib and told her “great job” even though I didn’t recognize her. That’s when she said “I’m a relay and I can barely catch you – you’re so inspiring!” Her bib was red, not orange! Phew! She had a strong pace and I was determined to stay with her so that’s exactly what I did. I ran alongside her for those final miles with her encouraging me the whole way – she was so awesome! She said I was inspiring but really she was the one who inspired me. She was in her own race yet she dedicated herself to pushing me those last miles talking me through it the whole way.

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Coming into the finish

I hadn’t looked at my watch in quite some time so when I rounded the corner to the finish line I was happy to see that I had met my goal of finishing under 8 hours. I gave my finishing partner a hug and thanked her for her kindness. I wanted to quickly grab my bag so I could get my phone to capture Ellie’s finish and as I was exiting Sandy was waiting to congratulate me. It was so awesome to have him there. Turns out getting my bag was quite the ordeal so sadly I missed Ellie’s finish as she came hobbling over to me crying tears of happiness after executing an amazing race – placing 15th in that field at her first 50 miler ever!

Of course since the race ended my mind has been in a constant state of ‘what I did wrong – what I need to do better’. But that’s how we grow right? It was a great experience to be racing such a strong field of competitors on a truly enjoyable course. The weather was perfect and I finished without any battle wounds or injuries so I couldn’t ask for anything more. Onto the next one!

There are some people I need to thank for making this race a positive experience:

Scott Field of Keystone Bodywork who spends countless hours keeping my body tuned and making sure everything is firing properly. Even though I swear at him a lot and wonder what I’ve done to make him hurt me so, I know that his thumbs and elbows are giving me love.

Jay Friedman my steadfast training partner who never missed a track or hill workout. Even on those dark sub-freezing mornings he was there to pull me along and keep me in check. Oh and hey, he’s in the running for RunUltra Blogger of the Year so vote for him here!

Sandy Naidu who offered up his Saturday to a complete stranger by crewing for me at the race. I’m so happy I got to meet and spend some time with such an awesome person and I will definitely take him up on his offer to crew me again in the future! And of course I have to thank Jonathan Levitt for bringing the two of us together.

Canada – you threw one crazy post-race party the weekend before my race which sharpened my endurance skills, challenged my ability to roll with things that aren’t part of the plan, and probably gave me the nasty cold I had to deal with going into this race 😉

And finally Topo Athletic for providing me with the shoes that kept my feet happy all year long. Yet another race without a single blister or any pain in my feet. A special thank you to Kristine David who, when the replacement shoes I needed for this race were not available in my size, sent me her own personal brand-spanking-new shoes so that I had a fresh pair for race day. Now that’s service!

Results: 11th Overall Female, 7:47:53

Gear: Topo MT2 shoes, Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0
Nutrition: Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer, BeetElite, Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix, Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration, Skratch Labs Fruit Drops, Huma gels, Larabar Bites, Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer, Vega Sport Recovery Accelerator…and of course Coca Cola and bananas 🙂

Lime Kiln Trail Runs – a Red Newt Racing event

Photo: Red Newt Racing

When I found out my training partner Jay Friedman along with Red Newt Racing would be hosting a trail run weekend in my neighborhood I knew I would be involved in some way. There was no doubt it was going to be a great weekend. I was simply waiting until after Escarpment to see how badly beat up my body was. I would either race or volunteer – I really wanted to race, obviously. I love the 3 race format – the challenge of tackling 3 events with little recovery time between each. This race offered 3 trail runs: a half marathon, a 10k, and a 5k. Your race entry fee allowed you to race all three events, or any combination of the three. But that’s not all – this weekend also focused on fostering the community of trail racing that many of us love. Two nights of camping on the exclusive Williams Lake Project property were also included in your entry fee with a lower fee for friends and family who were not participating in any races. Wait there’s more – you also had access to a food truck on site, breakfast both Saturday and Sunday morning, lunch and dinner Saturday, a CAVE PARTY Saturday night, and swimming in the pristine lake. Yeah, that’s a whole lot of awesome!

Tuesday morning I hit the track with Jay and Phil and was thrilled that I felt great and could still execute some speed. That evening I signed up for Lime Kiln Trail Runs! I did not plan to camp as I live so close to the race site and opted to sleep at home but I was looking forward to the rest of the activities.

Despite this being a local event I was not familiar with the trails – only the public rail trail which the courses utilized. Knowing that I shouldn’t expect too much from my body only a week out from Escarpment I had a plan to run “only as fast as needed” to win all 3 events. I don’t know who I thought I was kidding – no matter what the race I have a hard time approaching it with that kind of casual attitude. Lined up by the lime kiln that the event was named after, with Ian’s ram horn send-off I ran mile 1 of the half marathon at 6:44 pace. We started on the flat rail trail so it was justified but I realized my “take it easy” plan was a joke. It didn’t help that Syracuse Track Club teammate Jade Mills showed up to race as well so I had some tough competition!

After crossing over the trestle bridge we shot down the stairs under the bridge, crossed the main street in Rosendale, and proceeded to the only major climb of the course – Joppenbergh. From there we continued on mostly single track trails – nothing overly technical on the whole course but challenging enough! The highlight of all 3 races was passing through the cave – not something you experience at many races. It offered relief from the heat and the added challenge of your eyes adjusting to the darkness so that you had to pay attention to your footing.

Rosendale Trestle. Photo: The Ascend Collective

I’m not going to lie – I was feeling really tired during the half and although I knew I would complete all 3 races I was starting to dread how the other two would feel. As these thoughts crept in I decided it would be best to back off in hopes of saving something in the tank for later. I had been running with Mike Siudy but as we were caught by another competitor I let the two of them duke it out while I started my “cool down”. Hitting the last aid station Phil let me know there was one more mile to the finish line. I looked down at my watch knowing that couldn’t be right. Was Phil being mean with this foolery or did I miss something? It turns out there was some mismarking of the course making it 2 miles short. I was not at all let down by this. I crossed the line in 1:34:56, grabbed my Vega recovery drink, and straight to the lake with the other finishers to cool off before preparing for the 10k that would start in 80 minutes.

Recovery drink and recovery lake! Where I spent my day. Photo: The Ascend Collective

I recovered quickly and lined up for the 10k. This time we started in the opposite direction as this race would cover the 2nd half of the half marathon course. I felt totally recharged during the opening miles and before I knew it my watch hit mile 4 and I looked down to see that I was averaging a sub-8 pace. Since my “cool-down” miles worked well for me in the first race I decided to use this tactic again and backed it off to finish the 10k in 51:05. The temps were really heating up so I mixed a bottle of Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration and back to the lake I went for my cooldown. 1 hour and 1 race to go!

Lining up that last time for the 5k I was definitely feeling tired but pumped to finish the last race of the day. My stomach was growling from eating only a slice of watermelon and grapes between the races – I realized that maybe a gel before this final race would’ve been a good idea. Luckily it was a short one. The final race would traverse sections of both the first race and the 10k. I really enjoyed the change-up of each course but also appreciated that each race ran us through the cave.

Entering the cave. Photo: The Ascend Collective

The first and second overall males were a mere 20 seconds apart in cumulative time going into the 5k so I was excited to see how this last race would play out. When the race started I tried to keep them in sight to watch it unfold but as expected once we started climbing they disappeared. I tried to run strong for the first two miles and then once I passed Phil at his aid station one final time I felt confident enough to back it off for the finish, coming across the finish line in 25:32. This was good enough for 1st female overall in all 3 races! As an added bonus I was able to improve my pace at each race. 8:30 pace for the first race, 8:17 for the 10k, and 8:15 for the 5k.

Exiting the cave. Photo: The Ascend Collective

A high mileage training day with course support and running partners
An opportunity to race with the added excitement of strategizing
Negative splitting the races
  Lots of lake time!

I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the lake and hanging out with friends while enjoying the provided lunch and drinks. At 6pm dinner was served along with some live music before the award ceremony began. Every participant received a race poster, every runner who completed all 3 races received a brick from the original kiln that was stenciled to commemorate the day, and the award winners received pick axes. Very cool swag to top off the event!
From there the party moved to the cave which was now lit – it was cool to actually see what we were running through all day!
I think this event was a great success and everyone seemed to have had a great time – whether camping the full weekend or not. I am sure this race will continue to grow and I am excited to see this trail weekend at least double in size next year!

The Ascend Collective was on hand to capture the event and the photos from the weekend are stunning. Make sure to check out the full photo albums to get a look at the beauty that surrounded us.

Jared Avigliano’s video footage of the race and property can be found here.

Escarpment – Paying my dues to Manitou

I never wrote a race report after last year’s attempt at Escarpment. If I had, it would read something like this: I fell. A lot. At some points I could barely progress a quarter mile without falling again. I imagined Manitou pointing, shaking his head, and laughing at this newbie. None of the falls were exceptionally painful – not physically anyway. But with each fall the ground took another chunk of confidence from me and I started to question if I even belonged at this race. I was super-paranoid about injuring myself when it was time to train for Powerman Zofingen, and each time that thought crept into my brain I’d fall again. The end.

As you have probably learned by now I am constantly seeking redemption. It’s always hard for to listen to “never again” when “I can do better” is ringing in my other ear. Which is why I found myself on the start list for the 40th running of Escarpment on July 31st. If you are not familiar with this race simply go the web site and you’ll understand the attraction. To have such an epic race so close to home – how can I resist? Not to mention race director Dick Vincent is one heck of a guy who puts his heart and soul into this race. As do the extremely dedicated volunteers out on that course. The sense of community at this event is one of many highlights.

I accepted the challenge to go another round and Manitou rewarded me by providing exactly what I asked for on race day – rain. Lots of rain. And as an added bonus, cool temps! My goal was simple – run a faster time than last year. The first wave of men starts at 9:00 with the first female wave starting 5 minutes later. Again this year I was lined up with a strong and talented field of women. Kehr Davis was the returning champion and I was happy to see her – she would be my “gauge” in where I should be. Or more like where I shouldn’t be.

We were bubbling with smiles and energy as the anticipated horn blew releasing us on to the single track. I decided to go with Kehr and get a sense of how I felt. Last year she took off right from the start and within the first 200 meters I knew better than to try to stay with her. This year the pace was relaxed and I was feeling great. About a ½ mile in I felt the urge to pass. I knew this wasn’t the smartest idea so I stayed tucked in. But right around the mile mark I wanted to at least take a turn pulling and before long I had a gap on Kehr. Uh oh. Never fear – by mile 2.5 there she was to remind me of my silly error and I never saw her again! Such a strong and humble runner.

My plan was to run the first peak, Windham, at a steady pace as it is the easiest of the 3 (for me). Windham is a 3 mile climb ascending ~1800 feet. Once you reach the peak you are rewarded with a nice descent and some runnable miles before you hit the wall that is called Blackhead. At just under 1 mile you claw your way up for 1,000 feet. It’s a fun section for sure, but tough, especially for the vertically challenged. This year it was where I experienced my first fall of the day. I had a miss-step on one of the rocks and immediately started to slide back down the mountain. I was able to spin onto my back so that I could see what was below and my thoughts weren’t about hurting myself, but rather that I was going in the wrong direction and would need to tackle this part of the climb again.

You may think you’ll get some relief once you reach the peak of Blackhead, but the descent is equally tricky. Still lacking the confidence to tackle this course with reckless abandon I gingerly made my way down through the rocks and slick mud. This time when I fell at least I was sliding in the right direction. Next up is Stoppel Point – the 3rd and final major climb on the course. This climb is only about 2 miles long and a little less than 1,000 feet of climbing, but now your legs are feeling the effort from the first 2 climbs and you’re running on pure determination to get up and over. Near the peak you find the infamous airplane wreckage from 1983. This is where I cued the Stranger Things theme song – it fit the mood with the eerie crash site, low visibility, and rainy weather. And it meant that the hard part was over – 4 more miles to North Lake!

When I hit this point my focus was on running strong to the finish. I was having flashbacks of last year where in the last few miles Sheryl Wheeler came blowing by me like a freight train as I gingerly tiptoed over the rocks like it was my first day on a trail. Sheryl is a strong runner who craves mountains – the more gnarly the better for her! I knew she had to be gaining speed and momentum and must be hot on my heels. Any time I felt myself easing up I reminded myself that she was on the hunt. What I forgot is how technical some of those sections are in the last few miles. I wanted to hold 2nd place but I still wasn’t willing to take any risks for it. So I charged full speed ahead on the runnable sections hoping that would be enough to hold her off. I could hear cheering from the finish line and as I passed a volunteer he shot off 2 pumps of the air horn to announce that I was coming. I made it! Across the finish line and directly to Dick to give him a hug thanking him again for this amazing race and the opportunity to run it. It wasn’t long before Sheryl arrived bounding through the finish line – not even 90 seconds behind me. Wow that was close!

I hit my goal running almost 10 minutes faster than last year. I felt way better too. I rewarded myself by heading to the lake to cool down and wash off – high on the list of my favorite parts of this race. Then it was back to the finish line to cheer in the other runners with a great crew of people that I love to be around. As I said my goodbye to Dick he said “I hope to see you next year” which he quickly followed up by saying I would be back next year – it had already been decided. And I can tell you he’s right – I can do better.

The magical, mystical Blue Mountains

I’m going to have to apologize up front. I went into this race with the full intention of actually paying attention to the course so that I could provide an accurate description for those who would consider making the well-worth-it trek to the Georgian Bay in Ontario for this North Face Endurance Challenge. However as usual I was lost in my own little wonderland of racing and would have a very hard time recounting what I encountered at any given point in the race. Except for maybe the last 3 miles where around each corner – surprise – let’s climb up the ski slope some more! And then descending the face of the mountain one last time – using every ounce of energy to not come tumbling down. But let’s back it up a little.

The Prep
Friday morning I drove from Syracuse to the Blue Mountain region and I was immediately enchanted by this place. Beautiful rolling terrain, windmills, fields of wild flowers, unicorns. Yes, I’m certain there were unicorns in this picturesque fairy tale land. It had been over a month since my last ultra and to say I was amped to race is an understatement. Once I saw where I would be racing my excitement grew ten-fold. I checked in to my hotel at 6 and heated up my good ol’ pre-race curry while I sat in bed with my course guide fanned out around me. It was time for a cram session! Looped courses make it easy to strategize but this course had no rhyme or reason. At this point all I knew is that I wanted to beat last year’s winning time which was 5:46. So let’s shoot for 5:30!

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I had the course map, the elevation profile, and the aid station-to-aid station detailed course description in front of me and came up with my plan. I rehearsed the plan over and over in my head. I considered writing it down on my arm – sure I would forget. Nah – I hammered it into my brain – I was ready.

The next morning brought gorgeous sunny skies and perfect temps to start the day. Obviously, I was in magicland! As I lined up at the start I met Anne Bouchard and she definitely looked strong – I needed to watch out for her. Since there was going to be a lot of climbing in the first few miles my plan was to go out easy – always my biggest challenge. Since I was sure Anne was right there with me I hit the first mile at 7:40 and reminded myself, repeatedly, of my plan. And this is about the point where I cannot tell you much about the course.

The Course
Let’s just say it was a steady mix of running across the exposed slopes, running up ski trails, running down ski trails, hopping off ski trails into extremely twisty turny single-track trails through the woods – going up, going down. There were some sections of stone access roads, dirt roads – long straight roads where you could see yet another climb ahead of you. Around mile 7 there was a small cheering section ahead with signs as we made a right turn. When you see a sign that says “Make this hill your bitch” you know you’re in trouble. There were even some sections of paved roads which were nice for opening up your stride a bit. In some of the wooded sections the trail was so soft and the trees were so tall you felt like a small spec floating along. There were some rocky sections, roots, wooden bridges – but not a very technical course. We crossed one small stream, twice. I loved the mix.

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The Company
I can’t tell you exactly where I linked up with Matt – it was very early on in the race. I also can’t tell you who came upon whom. But we seemed to fall into sync with each other as we traded on and off leading and we began to chat. His goal was 5:30. Perfect! It was a great distraction as I realized by mile 5 or so that my “rehearsed” plan of how the course was to play out did not at all match what I was experiencing. I don’t know how to explain it really – as the race went on I realized that I actually had no clue of what I would encounter at each chunk of mileage so I threw my plan out the window and just raced! The other perk of running with Matt is that he had pretty extensive knowledge of the course. There was a long section running through very tall grass. My tick-phobia was kicking in big time.

Me: Matt, do you have a tick problem here?
Matt: A what?
Me: Where I’m from I could expect at least 20 ticks on me at this point.
Matt: I’ve never had a tick. Found one on my dog once.

Once?!? This truly is a magical place! No ticks! As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being any bugs at all. When we reached the halfway point I looked at my watch and asked “the 2nd half is easier than the 1st half right?” He responded with a resounding “yes”. We were well ahead of 5:30 pace and this got me pumped.

img_4897-1Matt and I ran alone for quite some time before Tarzan caught us. Okay his name is Anthony – something I did not know until I looked him up in the results – so during the race he was Tarzan. He was very built for an ultra runner, and the fact that he was shirtless accentuated this. After he passed I was mesmerized by his calf muscles. He was also full of positive energy which made me want to hang on to him. He would occasionally let out a loud whoop, or start clapping, or yell back at us “you guys are doing great – keep it up!” This guy was great! It was also his first 50k – he was obviously having a blast. His goal was top 10 and I was sure he had it in the bag. For a while the 3 of us ran together but they tended to linger at the aid stations when I was prepared to breeze through quickly. I felt a little guilty about this but without any knowledge of where the next female was I had to race my own race. I actually thought about asking for some info at an aid station but decided I didn’t want to know. I’d rather keep racing scared the way I like it.

With about 9 miles to go I took off at the aid station and was feeling really strong so I started to push. This was also sparked by looking at my watch and realizing that sub-5 hours was surely going to happen. On an undulating forest trail I heard that loud shout from Tarzan in the distance and I returned the call. When he caught up to me I could tell that although we were both running strong, we were both struggling with the distance between aid stations in the last few miles. By now the heat was turned up and although there was aid stations o-plenty they seemed so far away. And we were now back on the ski slope with a lot of sun exposure. I kept thinking to myself it would all be downhill from here. Wrong! There were a good 5-6 climbs in the last 3.5 miles. Just when you thought there is no way there can be another climb, you made a right turn into another wall. This was taking it out of me and soon Tarzan was out of view.

I hit that last aid station with one mile to go – the steep downhill… Almost as steep as Loon Mountain’s Upper Walking Boss. After running it at mile 6 of the race I knew what I was in for and tried to hammer down it to the best of my ability. Seeing Tarzan pass a runner on the descent made me want to get one last pass too. And right near the bottom I got it. From there it’s a short shot across the mountain to the finish line. I crossed in 4:46:17 – 1st female and 8th overall.

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The Hoopla
I have not experienced such a lively finish line outside of World Championship races. A long line of spectators screaming and ringing cowbells made the finish feel amazing! And then of course there was the award ceremony which seemed more like a concert. The crowd was packed tight and deep making it hard for the award winners to get to the stage. We quickly learned what this was about – November Project was in full force at this race as there was a marathon relay event. The top 3 overall males and females were brought up for each event. As their name was announced the crowd would chant their name. Once the podium shots were taken the “crowd surf” chant started and every one of us answered the call. It was a unique experience to end an amazing race day. North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario, I love you. I’m pretty damn sure we’ll meet again.

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I may have said it once but I’ll say it again – The North Face Endurance Challenge sure knows how to host a top-notch race event. I’m glad I discovered this race series and can’t wait for the Championship event in December!

P.S. Good luck to Anne who will be heading to UTMB to race CCC – my goal for next year!