Monday, August 25, 2014

Never give up

I've thought a lot about what I would call this post. This probably sums it up better than anything. It's been a while and It would be nice to write something that really grabbed the readers attention, but this really sums up my experience this year with ultra running, so I'm sticking to it.

There has been lots of good advice offered to me over the years, but there are a couple of pieces that really stick out to me right now. I don't think they apply to just ultra running, but to life in general. They both come from dear friends, that have put friendship ahead of advice. I guess that's why I've listened to them so much. The first is that you have to make the pleasure more than the pain. This has been timely advice, but it was missing something. I discovered that something even before I raced. That something was commitment.

I've tried running 3 ultras this year. First was the River Valley Revenge Ultra 100K in June. I got to 55km and decided I hated running. It had been working up for hours previous to that. In spite of the fact that I was making good time, I headed back to the start line, and threw in the towel. I regretted it later. At that point, I figured that I was in no shape to finish Sinister 7, which was by then only 3 weeks away. The mental game was already starting. I was non-committal to the race with my comments of "I'll do my best", and "I'll run until I stop having fun... there is no point in running past that." At Sinister, I made it to the end of leg 4, and then copped out. 55 miles this time.

I tried to keep things positive, and pitch things that I was happy with my race, but truth be told... I wasn't. I knew I could do better, and I had just allowed myself to do less. This became apparent when I woke up the morning of the race, and wandered up the stairs comfortably. I should not be able to do that!!!

So, with this frame of mind, and with another month of training under my belt, I set off to run the Iron Legs 50 miler in beautiful Kananaskis country west of Calgary. This race was different than the others, because it was set in a protected area, and on mostly single track trails. I don't know what it is about single track, but nothing says mountain run quite like a winding single track trail. I absolutely love it.

Winding single track trail through the mountain. It's just plain magical!
Start to Aid station 1

Start to Aid station 1 was easy. So was aid station 1 to 2, but at the end, just before I arrived at aid station 2, I hit a technical downhill section that I just got all caught up in. My quads were burning, my lungs were gulping in air as I flew past other runners. My feet felt nimble as they ever have, and so I felt confident in ripping down the section without a second thought.

Aid station 1 to 2
 When I arrived at aid station 2, I changed my socks from my regular socks to my toe socks, but I began to cramp when taking my shoes off. I felt it in my hamstrings, and in my feet. Turns out, this cramping was going to follow me for a while. It's funny, when you're in the heat of race day adrenaline, you don't always think clearly. One can often ease cramping with some salt/electrolyte pills. I had some, but forgot to take them. I said "hi" to the family, and headed out for leg 3 (aid station 2 to 3).

Aid station 2 to 3 elevation
 Leg 3 was one of the most challenging sections of trail. It was steep, it was rocky, and what relief you could find on the tree root and rock strewn trail would turn into a washed out section of trail. The race had to be cancelled last year, because the original trail was washed out from rain and flooding. The new course had an extra 1000 meters of elevation gain, which I figured would be challenging, but how hard could it be? I remember starting to cramp up pretty bad around 1/3 of the way through this section. I tried to stretch out, but in doing so, the opposite muscles would start to cramp. I just kept on running. "You have to make the pleasure greater than the pain" kept running through my mind. It was helping, but what could I take pleasure in? I've become very good at doubting myself. Would I start now? No... stop it Stephen, you've made a commitment, and your going to stick with it. Now keep on moving! This is where the other piece of good advice came in. It came in an hour of defeat, and it has helped tremendously. "Don't try to eat the elephant all at once". I ignored how much further I had to go, and concentrated on getting to aid station 3. Perhaps they had electrolyte pills there? Turns out, I did not have to wait that long. I wonderful runner came by and gave me 4. I took two and it helped a little. I say a little because the cramping did not stop, it just took the edge off. Time for some ginger pills for the nausea, and an Ibuprofen for the swelling.

I time, I could see a blue tent between the trees in the distance. Aid station 3!

Aid station 3 to 4 elevation
 The map does not really do justice to it because when I started leg 4, I figured that I had already summited how many ridges? They would not take us over powderface ridge again would they? Turns out they would. I settled into a pace that was not fast, but comfortable. I mythodically placed one foot in front of the other. In time, the tree line dissapeared, and I was at the top of powderface ridge. All downhill to aid station 4. I kept taking the salt pills and downing my food which was a custom combination of Maltodexterin powder, dextrose, and vega lemon-lime electrolytes. I cannot stand solid food when I run. I does nothing for me. On the other hand, Watermelon has become my best friend. I would kiss it, but it was already in my stomach :).
On the top of Powderface ridge (the first time)
Arriving at aid station 4 was such a relief. I did not want to quit, but I was in some pretty major pain. I kept having to shove any ideas out of my head that quitting would be easy. "You will recover in time" I thought. It was nice to see my wonderful family, and feel of their encouragement. Virginie proudly announced "You keep coming in with the same group of runners!" That's good, I thought... If I'm keeping up with the people around me, I must not be doing that bad.

It's something I've been really working on the last couple of months. Positive self talk. I'll finish an interval, and I'll tell myself "Good for you Stephen, that was a tough interval, and you gave it everything you've got, and that's good enough! Well done!!!" You would not believe how far that type of thing goes. One interval after another, I felt my strength increasing.

Iron Legs 2014 - Course Map
Aid station 4 to 5 was without a doubt the hardest section of trail I ran (or did not run). About 1/3 of the way into the leg, their was a bail out spot. The volunteer asked me if I wanted to take the 5km trail out to the finish line. I did not have to even think about it. In spite of the pain, I told him "Not on your life". I wanted to finish at least one ultra this year. Quitting was not an option. If I had to crawl across the finish line, if I got sick, if it rained and I got hypothermia and they had to evacuate me, I would take pride that I did not quit, and I was not about to quit now. I put on my headphones and listened to this song over and over again.

The words were inspired. I've said it a lot in this blog post already, but I refused to give an inch to doubt and worry. I ended up walking all the way to aid station 5. There waiting for me was my wonderful family. They had hiked into the aid station without complaint, and even had my favorite. Veggie Delight from Subway waiting for me. I munched it down with some water, massaged my legs and re-made my commitment to continue on.

Aid station 5 to 6 - Elevation change
The rest of the story involves my new best friend in the world, Josette Caissie. She was up ahead limping, but moving ahead. I caught up and we began to talk. We talked about race day experiences, goals, and about how ridiculous of a thing we were doing. I'm not sure if she hated running at the time, I know I sure did! Still, we talked and eventually started to laugh together. I enjoyed her company so much, that we stuck together the rest of the race. I was my little miracle for the day.

On the summit of Moose Mountain
Aid station 5 to 6 brought us up to the summit of Moose Mountain. It was not an easy climb, but much easier now that I had someone to share with it. It's one of the miracles of ultra marathoning in my opinion. All of ones social walls and protection is left 20 or 30 miles back. No one holds anything back anymore, and speaking for myself, but equally confident it applies to other, sufficiently humbled. We move ahead with a trust in our bodies, that they know something the mind doesn't something that is greater than us. 35 to 40 miles into the race, I began to discover that with Josette. We summited together, all the while, my feet cramping. We gingerly came down the steep trails, one foot at a time, but starting to make good time. By the time we had reached aid station 6, we were smiling and laughing. We were sore, and it was starting to rain, but we had visions of the finish line in our heads. There was no stopping us now.

6 to finish - Elevation change
Our pace was pretty slow when we first departed from aid station 6, but we were both in good spirits. For us, each uphill was a chore. Each downhill cause for care on sore quadriceps. The trail was beautiful. Eventually, we ran into Florin Panaitescu, and he joined our duo. We ran into my daughter Natasha about 4km from the finish line, and she joined us the rest of the way as well. By then night had fallen and we had our headlamps guiding our way through the dark.

Signs of "What are your legs made of?" and "Iron Legs", as well as cheers greeted us as we rounded the last corner and crossed the finish line. Because I had people to share it with, it was better than it could have ever been had I crossed on my own. Thanks to Florin, and especially Josette. One of the things that brings the most joy in life in my opinion is service to others. At church yesterday I learned that true service is something that you do for someone, that they cannot do for themselves. I want Josette to know that you did a true service for me. You helped to provide an atmosphere that I could recover, and prosper in. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you.

Final official time? 15:35:04

So, the moral of the story? Never give up. Never give up on your hopes and your dreams. You will get them, but they may be harder than you ever thought. I cramped for 50 km on those mountain trails, and even went into shock after I had a chance to sleep for a bit. I broke out into a fit of nausea, and a cold sweat. Virginie got me some smoothie, and after sipping for a bit, I felt better. Times will get rough, but they always get better, better perhaps because we have had a chance to sink so low. How can we gauge our progress, if we have no low point to start from?

My race season is not done yet. Iron Horse 100km, October 4th. I was thinking of the 100 mile, but honestly, I'm going to be humble and work my way up. Till then, happy training!

When we love someone, anything is possible.

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