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

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Mind the Mud – The North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50k

logoIt’s hard to put into words how excited I was leading up to this race. It was my first trail ultra of the year and I was ready! Even the deteriorating weather forecast throughout the week couldn’t suppress my excitement. A little cold, rain and snow wasn’t going to kill my vibe – this was looking like a fast course! I had a 50k PR time etched into my mind and I was itching to grab it!

I woke up Saturday morning before my alarm went off – a sure sign I was ready to race! First thing was peer out the window into the artificially lit parking lot – I could tell it had been raining quite a bit throughout the night but it appeared to have stopped. Next order of business was to check my weather app – cloudy and staying below 40 throughout the race but the rain seemed to be gone during the window I would be racing. This put even more of a spring into my step. After eating 2 bananas and a packet of almond butter I mixed my Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration drinks for the day, layered up in plenty of clothing, and was on my way to the parking area where shuttles would await to take us to the start.

Riding on the bus it was still pitch black and I had my headphones in listening to my pre-race jams. I looked to the front of the bus and noticed the windshield wipers were on full speed and we were driving through a downpour. I was happy that I made the last-minute decision to dump my dirty laundry bag before leaving the hotel so that I could keep my gear dry. After a short hike to the race start in Algonkian Regional Park we were greeted with the most pleasant of surprises – they had 4 giant propane fire pits roaring for athletes to huddle around and try to stay warm. I had about an hour before the race start so there I stood – bundled up in rain gear with my backpack stuffed into a plastic bag to stay dry. Without those fire pits it would’ve been a rough wait. As we’re talking amongst ourselves I was listening to stories about how muddy this course can get even if it hadn’t rained in the past few days. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mud – it was like ice skating. The hills become big mud slicks and athletes have had to push each other up and over. The only “dry” area was at Great Falls Park. The stories didn’t stop and although I was assuming these were over-exaggerated tales I quickly realized that with the amount of rain that had been falling, it was time to forget about that PR.

Clearing up for the start

Clearing up for the start

As the 7 a.m. start time drew near the rain tapered off and you could feel the energy building as we had some relief. I shed my layers, checked my gear bag, and lined up at the very relaxed start where Dean Karnazes sent us on our way. The first 2 miles were grass to road to gravel trail and I ran them both at just over 7:00 minute pace. This was faster than I needed to go but I figured I should take advantage of these “clear” miles. Hopping onto the trail was refreshing as the mud didn’t seem nearly as bad as I had imagined. I can deal with this! At mile 4 we hit the first climb and it was great to finally have a change in elevation. But then…the trail dropped us down along the river and that’s where the real fun started!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

So maybe they weren’t kidding about this mud! The single-track offered no option but to sink into ankle-deep slop. I’m not at all afraid of mud – I find it to be kind of fun. But yes it was slick and with all of the twisting turns you had to slow down significantly to maneuver through them. My pace quickly dropped into the 8’s and 9’s out of pure necessity to stay upright and not overshoot any of the sharp bends. I was loving it though! I knew that this slower pace would only benefit me later in the race. I also felt lucky to be in the top 10 at this point and getting some of the “fresh” tracks in the mud. We came to the next steep climb and there was no choice but to hike because, true to the stories, it was like climbing an oiled plastic tarp. Coming down the other side proved to be even more challenging, and I even considered sliding down on my rear as it may have been faster. However the random roots jutting out made me double-think that option 😉

Despite the slick and slow-running mud the miles were clicking by with ease. It had rained once and there was even a short hail storm, but neither were bothersome and I was feeling appropriately dressed for the conditions. I was only tiring mentally as I had to focus on every footfall. All I wanted was a short break from this terrain so that I could relax, settle into a nice pace, and enjoy the scenery. I could tell that the views around me were awesome as I heard the Potomac River roaring at some spots while at others it was completely calm and peaceful. For long stretches the single-track was twisting and turning through lush patches of bluebells. I was looking forward to reaching Great Falls Park where rumor had it there would be a much-needed break from the mud.

I was having fun in Great Falls!

I was having fun in Great Falls!

That break did not disappoint! Arriving at Great Falls Park I was greeted with stunning views of rock cliffs that made me say “whoa” out loud. At mile 13 there was another aid station which was also a main spot for racers’ crew, so there was an abundance of spectators, cheering, and energy. And such a nice change of pace on runnable trails! I was definitely enjoying this section (as were my ankles, knees and hip flexors) and I could finally open up my stride. There were two out-and-back sections in the Great Falls loop and around mile 16 I saw the 2nd female. By my estimate she was about a mile back. Way too close for comfort! I knew it was time to shift into another gear and tackle the 2nd half of this course. However Great Falls seemed to bring a 10 degree drop in the temps (that’s what it felt like anyway) and after feeling plenty warm up to that point I was suddenly wishing I had more clothing, especially on my legs which now felt frozen in slow motion. At the 2nd out-and-back spot I hit the turnoff before seeing her again, so I felt some relief that she hadn’t gained any ground during those 2 miles.

Now it was time to mentally prepare for those long muddy miles on the return trip. I knew they would be in bad shape, but they were way worse than I had imagined! I was still hanging tough up until mile 24 but now the marathon runners were coming in the opposite direction making this tricky single-track even more challenging. Although my Topo Runventures were doing an excellent job in these conditions, I don’t think any shoes could tackle the muck that we were trudging through. My pace had become embarrassingly slow, and at one point I said to myself “this is a race – get moving!” The reality was that I couldn’t go any faster. I was skating on the mud and each step was a test in staying upright, never mind trying to accelerate. The only acceleration was the exhaustion in my legs. My only thought was that the 2nd female would surely catch me at this pace. Thinking was not a smart idea, not at all, because the slight distraction caused a slip I couldn’t recover from and down I went onto my hands and knees. I made it all the way to mile 25.5 without a fall. At least the landing was super-soft 🙂 I tried to wipe a chunk of mud off my face which only caused it to smear. Okay, I have my war paint – let’s finish this thing! I was still certain that I was going to be caught by the 2nd female and convinced myself that 2nd place would be okay. Quickly after I had this thought I said to myself “you didn’t lead this far to lose it in the final miles”, and tried to dig a little deeper.
MUDThat was a mistake. The next fall was much more dramatic as I was attempting to move way faster than my feet could skate under me. I crafted a head-first dive and slid a good 5 feet. Safe! There was a guy behind me this time as he yelled out “are you okay?” and I could only laugh as I shouted back “yes!” I was completely covered in mud on my right side. I quickly stood up and tried to wipe the bulk of this mess off me as I suddenly felt a few pounds heavier. The mittens had to come off as they were full of very cold mud. Having nothing on my hands meant I quickly lost feeling in my fingers. The temps still felt cooler than the start thanks to the 30 mph wind gusts (that’s what I heard they were anyway). I was so close to the finish that having frozen fingers wasn’t an issue. Shortly after the fall the lead male of the 50 miler was coming up behind me – I could hear his pacer shouting out every obstacle in his path. I took advantage of this fresh, helpful pacer and after allowing them to pass me, I hopped on for as long as I could manage. I could definitely feel his pain as I watched him navigate each step with caution. And he had way more many miles under his belt!

done

Instead of counting down the miles to the finish I was counting down the miles until I got to the gravel trail. I knew all I had to do was make it out of the endless mud pits. That point finally arrived and I thought “I don’t remember this stretch being so long!” I cannot even tell you how many times I looked back in those last 2 miles – convinced that the 2nd female was closing strong on me. Making that final turn to the finish line I saw that I had it! Way off my goal time but happy to have made it across the finish line in 1st place!

I may not have run the time I wanted and I could quickly tell that I was going to be way more sore than normal the next day, but I really had a great time! Racing in tough conditions makes the memory much sweeter. Being surrounded by such beautiful natural scenery makes the suffering much more enjoyable. The best part is how great I felt throughout the race – that feeling trumped every other victory! 🙂

Only 2 of us stuck around in the cold for awards

Sonja Hinish and I were the only 2 who stuck around in the cold for awards

This was my first North Face Endurance Challenge Series race and it definitely won’t be my last! I’m already signed up for the Championship race at Golden Gate National Recreation Area on December 3rd. And I would love to return to the DC race next year. The race was well-organized, the course was beautiful, and the volunteers…well they deserve an extra round of applause for this one!

This was my first race in my Topo Runventures and they served me well considering what I put them through. It was also my first race sporting my Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest. Both of these items deserve their own write-up and that is exactly what I will do. Look for product reviews coming soon!
shoes

Finishing time – 4:36:27