16 August 2017

Race Report - The Limberlost Challenge 2017 (DNF)

You win Limberlost, you win.

I went into this year's event with high hopes of not only completing another ultramarathon (56km), nor just bettering my 2014 result of 9:11 but actually executing a smart game plan and perhaps posting a top-10 or even a top-5 finish.  That's the kind of shape that I felt that I was in, and with my skyrunner friend Juan helping to keep me honest I thought that the odds might actually be stacked in my favour.

Pre-race
With so many of the RunNinjas heading up to tackle The Limberlost Challenge this year I carpooled with my friends Joy and Lewis - Joy was feeling under-trained going into her first 28km race attempt, and Lewis was still nursing a nagging patellar injury but had volunteered to assist at an aid station.  For my part I felt quite confident having completed the 50km distance at Pick Your Poison and believing that I'd learned a number of value lessons that I could bring to the table this time around.  One thing that I'd done differently was to get in a solid two-week taper ... now I'll admit that it left me feeling a bit stale on race-day morning but the key was that I was able to nail all of my desired paces during the workouts leading up to Limberlost weekend so I was reasonably confident that I could trust the training that I'd put in.

After about an hour we arrived in Huntsville and opted for a short pit-stop for washrooms and gasoline.  Well, we got the washrooms part but it was evident after two non-operational fueling stations that some kind of wicked storm had knocked the stuffing out of the computer networks that worked the pumps.  I'd later find out that my friend Vicki had no power through the night at her hotel in Huntsville thanks to a blown transformer somewhere.  This might have been my first cue that the day would turn out a little differently that I'd anticipated.

Pulling into the parking lot at The Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve we all commented on how many cars had already filled the designated parking area (and it was approximately an hour before the 56km start time).  What we would quickly come to realize was that as many cars as there were the ratio of mosquitoes to cars was even higher ... a momentary opening of the driver-side door let in seven or eight of the bloodsuckers.  Between the soggy spring weather that we'd experienced and the overnight thunderstorm the bugs were swarming in stereotypical Muskoka fashion.  As such it was a mad dash from the van to the sign-in tent and back to the van to try to get ready in advance of the starter's pistol.  We still managed to connect with a bunch of RunNinjas and snap the obligatory pre-race selfies, all while getting drained of a pint or two of blood.


Photo credit:  Kathleen Power

The race
I was mentally prepared to go slow, and with Juan setting the pace we took a very measured and controlled approach to the first two 14km loops. We weren't excessively chatty, but carried on at a clip that certainly permitted casual conversation about the gorgeous scenery and the occasional sections of mud (***foreshadowing***) that we encountered along the way.  Over the first 7km we were overtaken by a number of eager runners - which we'd fully anticipated would happen and were none too worried about - and eventually dialed in to a pace that kept us together with another friend of mine named David (who'd recently completed the Sulphur Springs 200 miler).  I constantly kept checking back with Juan to ensure that I wasn't getting overanxious about our time, and after the first two loops we were pretty much spot on, crossing the first 14km in 1:40:40 and dusting off the next 14km in 1:38:09.  At this point a negative split was in sight ...!

But then the third loop happened.

Nothing too monumental, but during this lap the mud sections had sprawled out to about four times their starting sizes, and one of the most significant bogs was found along a 70m incline.  Naturally we all slowed while traversing these shoe-sucking pits, but I think that they also actually wound up doing a number on my hamstrings as at about 35km my legs started to offer some unusual and unfamiliar feedback.  I had to let Juan skip along out of sight ahead of me as I felt like the pace was becoming labourious, and I was becoming concerned about the sensations in my lower limbs.  For one of the first times in an ultra it wasn't my cardio or my fueling or my race tactics that was the presenting problem ... could it be that my fitness just wasn't there?

Naaahhh, it couldn't be.  After all I'd managed to recently power through a billy-goat's worth of 50k at Pick Your Poison and continued to build up my training after that.  In the end I can't say for certain what did me in, but my hamstrings were tight and led to me altering my gait ever-so-subtly ... and I could tell that after completing the third loop that if I decided to finish out the race that I'd almost definitely be setting the stage for some kind of compensation injury.  With that in mind I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour on this day and pulled the plug at the start/finish area, noting this to both the course marshal and the event medical crew.

Post-race
Part of me certainly thought that this was a moment of shame - after all I'd managed to tough out every other race I'd ever participated in, regardless of how difficult it felt.  And yet on this particular occasion it totally felt like the right thing to do - I was not going to be competitive any more in this race, and with pacing duties ahead of me this fall I didn't want to sabotage the rest of my summer training season having to nurse a wonky knee or wrecked quads ...

... which unfortunately is exactly what happened to my pal Juan.  While he finished the race (taking 11th overall and a bronze medal finish for his age category) he pretty much collapsed in pain at the conclusion of the run.  Apparently he'd also questioned the wisdom of finishing the final 14k - which we eventually both chalked up to the instability of running through long sections of mud - but decided to do it anyway.  He finished with a high degree of knee pain that left him hobbling and unable to make it to the podium when his name was announced over the PA system.  The next day he'd actually take himself into the emergency room at Royal Victoria Hospital and was told that while he would not require surgery he was facing at least a 5-week 'no running' order.

All in all I came away satisfied with what I'd accomplished - a solid 42k trail training run (although even Strava refused to fully acknowledge my effort!), a great day spent with Juan and cheering on so many of my fellow RunNinjas, and the intentions of perhaps one day returning yet again to flog the Limberlost Challenge into submission.

What?  Even the kilometres that I toughed out didn't count?!?

But this time, I yield.  You may have won the battle Limberlost, but not yet the war.




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07 July 2017

No second chances at a first impression ... just second chances

It's taken three long years to recover.

Not physically, but perhaps psychologically.

And tomorrow I am returning to the scene of my most epic race blow-up, where I lay on the brink of oblivion before being rescued by my relentless and faithful friend Jim.  Yes, in less than 24 hours I will once again tackle the 56km trails of the Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

The last time that I was there I was tackling my first real ultra, and in part due to a mismanagement of salt intake I struggled with dehydration and a dangerously low blood pressure situation.   Again, thanks to Jim's perseverance and sacrifice I managed to hobble my way across the finish line, feeling a great sense of defeat and dissatisfaction.  Now, having a few more ultras under my proverbial belt (including a couple of 50ks and a 50-miler) I'm going to try my hand once more at this event.

What's going to be different this time?

Much, I hope.

For one thing I will be sharing the forest with a dozen or more of my fellow RunNinjas, covering three of the four available distance options.  Just knowing that I'm going to criss-cross with my tribe members out there is going to provide me with plenty of inspiration.

Second, I plan to run with my newfound Ecuadorian friend (and experienced mountain ultra-runner) Juan - and since he has proven with consistency that he can race negative splits I'm hopeful that together we will be able to execute a smart race strategy that will serve us both well.

Third, I know what it's like to have every cell in your body yearn for you to swallow your pride and post that DNF (did not finish).  I know what it's like to feel like when returning to an upright position - let alone taking another step - seems impossible.  I know what it's like to watch as dozens of runners pass you by as you lay motionless on the ground. 

But more than that I know what it's like to get back up from that and get the job done.

Tomorrow, I'll be armed and dangerous.  Limberlost, I'm coming for you, and this time it's personal.

#redemptionrun #GOlikeneverbefore


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01 July 2017

It's Canada 150!

Here's to this great nation that I call home ... happy birthday Canada! #Canada150



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09 May 2017

Race report - 2017 GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon (Relay)

Riddle me this Batman:  how is it possible to not start a race and yet post a finishing time (without cheating)?

Be the anchor leg on a relay team.

It was still the dead of winter when my friend Gillian pitched the idea that perhaps some of us from the RunNinjas should enter a relay team in this year's edition of the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon.  Being a veteran relay racer herself she knew how much fun it could be, and given that she was willing to take the lead on the organizational end of pulling a group of runners together (not far off from herding cats) this was just the kind of spark that we needed to get this initiative underway.

Being that this would fit the bill of tackling a new kind of race (which I'm usually pretty game to try) I agreed to be part of our 8-person crew which included Gillian, RickyD, Angela, Chris, Sarah, Cher and Iris.  After a bit of back-and-forth finagling we settled on an order of runners, with everyone taking on a 5km section of the 42.2km course except for me ... the hand-off to the final relay racer leaves 7.2km to cover so I had ever so slightly more distance to run out.  When we worked this all out I figured that this would not be a problem (given my penchant for running longer back-to-back workouts on the weekends) but after last weekend's thrashing at the hands of the Pick Your Poison Trail Run I wasn't carrying the same kind of confidence into the weekend.

At the same time, running with and for your friends adds a whole new dimension of 'giddy-up' to the experience.

With Gillian as our mastermind we held a few 'planning' meetings over Tim Horton's coffee and muffins to discuss logistics and even plan out race-day outfits (so that we could easily spot each other at the relay checkpoints) and brainstorm ideas for a hand-off baton (which eventually turned into a small flag that was passed from runner to runner).

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On race day we carpooled down in a few vehicles knowing that we would have staggered start times depending on which leg we each were responsible for covering, and to have cars parked at appropriate points along the course to ensure that everyone could get a ride down to the finish line.  Gillian, Iris and I commuted together into the city, arriving at Liberty Village almost three hours before I was scheduled to receive the RunNinjas flag at the 35km mark.  This gave plenty of buffer time to make at least three trips into the washroom at the adjacent Metro grocery store and for Gillian to walk the 1.5km to her checkpoint and Iris and I to march about 3km down to the Martin Goodman trail to her 30km checkpoint.  Of course I'd have another 5km jog to take after that, but with no time pressure it was enjoyable to do so as the fastest of the marathoners overtook me for the last quarter of their races.

Arriving at the 35km relay point I spotted our good friend and BQ-attempting RunNinja Rob trucking his way down the course - I trotted alongside him just to find out how he was feeling and was encouraged to hear that he was still on track to hit something close to his 3:15 target.  I also managed to spot a few other friends as I waited for Iris to come around and make the hand-off - Eldon, "Udora Flash" Dave and an unknown runner sporting the familiar race kit markings of the Malden Park Runners each received a hoot and a holler from me.  I admit to having been more than a bit worried about out other RunNinja compatriot YouJin who was attempting a BQ time of her own - while I was on the lookout for her I did not immediately see her, and watched as the 3:30, 3:40 and 3:45 pacers passed by the 35km mark, knowing that she was aiming for a 3:25-3:30.

When I finally saw Iris I quickly took up my position near the green relay-area pylons and with a quick congratulations and a nab of the RunNinja flag I quickly got up to speed.  My goal was to try to hold a 5k-race effort as long as I could - and with every quick peek at the Garmin 305 I saw that I was holding in and around a 3:55/km pace so I was encouraged by that.  Now I admit to feeling somewhat guilty passing numerous marathoners (in fact I wouldn't be passed by anyone for the entire 7.2km anchor leg) knowing that they'd all been working hard for 3+ hours by this point, and here I was on fresher legs ... still, it was a race for them and it was a race for me so (to borrow from the great Steve Prefontaine) 'to give anything less than my best would have been to sacrifice the gift'.

Any worries that I had about the weather conditions were assuaged as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and it actually became quite warm.  There were moments that I felt over-dressed, and I did manage to work up a sweat which would have crossed over to uncomfortable had I needed to run further than the 7.2km.  That wasn't helped by the fact that as I rounded the corner into the finishing chute I passed a runner who decided that he wanted to try to outsprint me across the line - of course the competitive side of me would have none of that, and given the fact that he'd pounded out more miles than me on the morning I had a bit more left in the nitrous tank to cross a second or so in front of him.

Do you know how many times I heard "Go Pikachu go!" ...? #ItsAdventureTimeJake

Looking back at my splits I actually managed to click off a new 5k PB (19:41) in the midst of my run ... not too shabby given what my game plan was!

After collecting all eight medals for our team I was spotted by Gillian who led me back to where the other RunNinjas were near the final corner.  We'd gathered to wait for Iris who was running the full 7.2km back to meet us since that was the most direct route for her to reconvene with the rest of the group.  I found Rob had waited to see us finish (after his 3:18 performance), as well as YouJin who must have cruised by as I paused to get my bearings at the 35km checkpoint given that she wrapped up her race in a stellar 3:23 (more than a 20 min. PB for her)!

YouJin (second from left) and Rob (far right) now Boston-bound!

L-R:  Cher, Gillian, moi, Iris, Angela, RickyD, Sarah and Chris

Following the obligatory post-race group photos our team decided to vacate the city (as the Toronto Raptors were hosting game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals which meant an influx of "We The North" fans to the downtown core) and head to Beeton for a bite to eat at The Whistle Stop.  While enjoying a well-deserved recovery meal we also discovered that our team came in third place overall for the relay - a podium finish we'll take!

All in all a great time, and a much better day for me than one year ago at the same race (although I had the privilege of pacing for a really good friend that time).  Congrats to all of our RunNinjas as we declared loud and proud that #WeRunThisTown !
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04 May 2017

Race report - 2017 Pick Your Poison Trail Run (50k)

It wasn't until about 2.5k into the start of the race that I noticed that my shoelaces weren't even actually tied.

And so began my day traversing the hills of Horseshoe Valley.


Pre-race
For a number of years I'd heard about, seen and wanted to participate in the Pick Your Poison Trail Run.  As a backyard event (only about 20 min. away from my house) it always seemed like it would be a natural race for me to take in ... but because of its placement on the calendar it always seemed to conflict with my intentions of getting in a strong spring marathon.  However, with my resolution to not race a marathon for myself this year the month of April was wide open so it became one of the first events to be plotted on my timetable.

Initially my thoughts were to just get out there and run this course to enjoy it ... but alas the competitive side of me usually commandeers the best of my intentions.  In any event, I've spent the majority of my spring training for shorter, faster races so I basically had just over two weeks to try to ensure that my mileage was sufficient to not require an evacuation off of one of the ski runs.

In terms of the pre-race communication there wasn't much by way of direct emails - it seemed to be pretty much left up to the individual participant to check in on the website or the Facebook page.  In fact, I wouldn't have even known about the pre-race day packet pick-up had it not been for my friend Mariana letting me know that she had spied an update regarding that option on the FB page.

Communications aside, the actual nabbing of the kit at the 'expo' was a piece of cake - I would have been in and out with my bib, t-shirt, complimentary jar of honey and running magazine in a matter of seconds had I not run into Mariana, Crystal, Cher and Nancy who were all there at the same time collecting their goodies.



I gotta say that leading up to race day I was feeling really good - like I could be competitive in this event, at least given the results posted from last year's race.  And since distance running is such a mental game I felt like I had an edge, perhaps for the first time in a long time (ever??).  That had me raring to go.

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The race I arrived my customary 60 min. prior to gun time partly to ensure that I secured a decent parking spot but also to try to connect with a slew of people who I'd known were going to be running the race.  A good number of my RunNinja mates, ENDURrun comrades, Barrie Trail Running Clubbers and some folks reppin' my former Team Running Free colours were all going to step up to tackle the ski hills with me, and I was excited to say "hey" and offer some words of encouragement and support.  It also helped me to chat with several of them who knew the course, and even to check in with them on what they planned to wear as I was somewhat indecisive as to how many layers to don (the temps were just above 1°C with the windchill at the start).

We RunNinjas run these hills!

Being that I wanted to not get caught in any kind of conga line along single-track early in the race (hmm ... fatal error #1 perhaps ...?) I lined up near the front of the mass start.  I should have kept in mind that all three distances - 12.5k, 25k and 50k - were going out at the same time, so there would be people gunning at paces that would be sustainable for one loop, but perhaps not so much for four. 

Alas, I did not pay much heed to that.

[ Loop 1 ]
Since the course starts out for a pretty flat 3k or so I went out at a pace that felt strong but sustainable.  However as anyone who's race a marathon knows that 'early feel good' pace is almost certainly faster than it should be - and sure enough I bumped out a 4:03 first kilometre, just about 90s faster than my planned per-kilometre race pace.  Things slowed after that as we were winding through single track ... and somewhere around 2.5k as I was staring at the shoes on the person in front of me I wondered why my feet were feeling so sloppy in my Skechers GOTrail shoes.  I know I'd selected these so that there'd be a bit more space for my feet to swell (I'd swapped in a thinner pair of insoles) but I also laced them up to take advantage of the heel-lock holes at the top ... but you know what I saw when I looked down?

That I'd forgotten to actually tie up my laces.

So just before the trail started to climb up I stopped in a double-track area to stoop over and properly secure my shoes to my feet.  Now of course having stopped and watched several runners pass me by while tying my laces I felt that inherent need to make up some ground.  #Imadoofus

Aside from one patch of muddy trail that extended for about 500m or so - an obvious area of spring run-off halfway up the side of a hill - the trail was in really good shape.  I power-hiked most of the significant climbs, but felt good enough (yeah, at that point!) to jog up one of them in order to try to claim a few extra spots.  Please kids, don't do this at home. 

Time:  1:09:02 (24th spot out of all runners, all distances)

[ Loop 2 ]
Having felt significantly warm at points during the first loop I made the decision to shed my t-shirt layer as I paused to collect more gels from my drop-bag on the other side of the start-finish line.  That left me with just a singlet and arm warmers on top which ended up serving me just fine (although there were still some really chilly winds to contend with plus a UV factor that I hadn't accounted for ... #firstsunburnof2017).

I continued to feel strong through the second loop, running sections of it with another guy named Sean, a long and lean runner with an effortless stride.  We played 'leapfrog' in various sections as he'd stop at the aid stations while I decided to power through (mindlessly forgetting to take in electrolytes just about all day).  One of the best parts of each loop was passing cheerleader/drill sargeant extraordinaire Mary Mitchell who hollered encouragement while strategically placed at a viewing point where she could observe runners climbing two incline sections.  Her energy definitely provided a mental boost while at the same time providing sufficient motivation to get beyond her field of vision just so you could return to a powerhike/walk stride. :)

Time:  1:13:14 (totalling 2:22:16 for two loops, which would have been good enough for 12th overall in the 25k division)

[ Loop 3 ]
I began to worry about Sean as we started the third loop as he was out of sight in front of me when I passed through the start/finish/lap area but I caught up to him walking at around the 28k mark.  He indicated that all was good so I passed by him expecting that this would be just another leapfrog moment - except that I would not see him again until after I finished my race.

Although I was still feeling reasonably good I definitely was powerhiking longer sections of each incline and the downhills were being tackled with a little more hesitation.  This would be a precursor to what was going to follow, but in my head I was still on track to nail a sub-5 hour time and I wanted to keep that frame of mind going as long as possible.

The mud bog run-off section of the course was now becoming something that you'd expect to see in a Spartan/Warrior Dash kind of obstacle race.  Even trying to catch the most solid-looking of paths my shoe was nearly suctioned right off of my foot twice during this pass, but again I was grateful that the Skechers GO Trails shed the extra moisture and mud weight quickly.

One of the biggest victories during this lap was that I didn't let anyone pass me - I knew that we would all be slowing down to some degree, and I just hoped that I could keep my placing as long as possible.

Time:  1:21:27 (still 13th fastest for this loop)

[ Loop 4 ]
Annndddd here's where the wheels came right off.

The flat section was still quite manageable, with opportunities to start to lap some of the slower 50k runners.  This also provided a tremendous ego lift, which lasted until I started to ascend the hills.

My quads were all but done.  I was reduced to shuffling speeds on any positive or negative grade.  I'd managed my fueling reasonably well (missing electrolyte drinks aside), taking my Endurance Tap gels about every 25 min., one salt tablet each loop and using a full handheld Nathan waterbottle over each 12.5k.  I felt as if my cardio was still strong, but them stubby legs of mine were not strong enough to keep up a running pace.  It was humbling to start getting passed by other runners, dropping spots that I'd hoped to hold on to.  There was even a moment when someone yelled my name from about 200m back (and 60m below) - it was Chad, who had jokingly said that he would try to just tie a rope to me and try to keep up over the 50k.  Well, sure enough at 46k he caught up to me and was still prancing along fresh enough to out-stride me up the last few climb sections.  If neither speed nor strength nor strategy are part of my arsenal I can claim that sheer force of will certainly is, and that is what got me down the final ski run and across the finish line.

Time:  1:37:16 (total time 5:20:59, securing 17th spot overall)

[ Photo credit:  Rhonda Stickle ]


Post-race
After being handed the much-renowned finisher's socks I collected my drop bag and donned some warmer clothing from my car.  Heading back to the chalet and past the start/finish/lap area I spied Sean who'd finished a mere six minutes behind me, and just let him know that I was glad that he'd not been taken out by the course.

There was a small meal available for all of the competitors and I took advantage of nabbing a vegan burger (which was super yummy and surprisingly palatable after a day full of maple syrup gels) and a giant oatmeal cookie which got tucked away for later.  I spent a little bit of time in the chalet chatting it up with some of my Barrie running friends before calling it a day and heading back home for a much needed and long awaited ... chore of taking down all of our exterior Christmas lights.

Key learnings
There were a number of takeaways from this day's event for me:
  1. No matter how much experience you have you're still susceptible to rookie mistakes:  Yes, I shot out of the gate way too fast.  Even though my friend (and formidable ultramarathoner) Bill Lovett expressly advised me to take the first loop easy I let ego and adrenaline get the best of me.  Anyone who knows anything about ultrarunning knows that the smartest runner in an event like this is the one who slows down the least, and today that was not me.
  2. Tapering makes a difference:  And had I actually tapered I might have benefited from it.  I wandered into this race off of a 105km training week, a total of about a 4.5% taper from the week before and about 12% less than my highest training mileage over the past few months.  As much as I would like to think that I can be Yuki Kawauchi, there can only be one Yuki.
  3. Respect the downhills more:  On the first two loops I basically bombed down each hill, and by the fourth loop I felt like I had been bombed by every hill.  Even though time is available to be made up on the descents I need to be a bit more conservative knowing that my legs are not strong enough to take that kind of continuous pounding.  Again, Kilian Jornet I am not.
  4. Mental toughness can only get you so far:  It's definitely something that I pride myself on, and that I feel I develop by training throughout the dead-of-winter months here in Barrie, Ontario.  But I think of how I'd passed up at least one opportunity to run the PYP trail in the weeks leading up to the event and how that could have gone a long way in helping me to anticipate how to tackle the various segments of the loop.  My almost complete ignorance of the course itself may have just one more variable contributing to a less-than-desired outcome.
After all was said and done though it was a pretty solid day's worth of exercise.  The course was supremely well-marked - I never had any concern of getting lost, even during those short stints where I found myself alone in the forest.  The volunteers were very helpful, and the organization on race day pretty superb.  I may not be quick to sign up again in the next couple of years as I plan to take on spring marathons again, but it's definitely a race that I'm happy to recommend to anyone who wants to test themselves and take in a great part of the province.

Race gear used:

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