Friday, July 17, 2015

Sinister 7 : Conquering mind and mud

My name is Stephanie, and I am transgendered. It means that I was born as a male, and at least in my case, was socialized as a male, and lived as a male for 40 years. How I came to my decision to transition my gender to female is not in the scope of this post, but it sets the stage for how I was living, as I toed the start line at the 8th annual Sinister 7 Ultramarathon + Relay, set in the beautiful Crowsnest Pass in Alberta,  Canada. I had registered for the race as male, because at that point, I had not even met the psychiatrist that would assess me, and recommend me for transition. I have been full time on female hormones for about 2 months now and have stabilized finally in the female range about 1 month ago. Definitely not enough time for me to fairly race as a female. So, there I was, with bib number 4 and my male name “Stephen” printed on it at the bottom. My Wife Virginie had dropped me off at the start line, so she could head up to TA1/2 the transition area at the end of leg 1/start of leg 2 to volunteer. She dropped me off with a kiss, and I said “see you soon” to my 3 children.

The electricity of race day morning was already in the air. Runners, clearly prepared for their runs were amassing from all directions, clothed in all types of colorful running gear. I set off to look for those who ran in my own club (fast trax) to wish them luck and kick butt on whatever portions of the race they were doing.

I’m particularly biased to my run club. I came out in January of this year, and did so on Facebook. The efficacy of the method is highly debatable, but nevertheless, as I pushed “okay”, I did so with a sense of dread, excitement, worry, fear, and relief all at once. Literally within minutes I received my first reply. A gentleman from my run club. He congratulated me on what I did, and offered his complete support. Messages like this came in throughout the next 3 days, including friend requests from runners at the club who had not been out for a while.

It’s never been really easy for me to trust people, especially as a man, but in this environment, I felt I could trust people, and I began to feel more confident in socializing. In time, trust soon followed. It’s not just the run club. Almost every runner I’ve met has been the same. Kind, generous, and not the least bit concerned about what gender I was, rather more interested in what kind of workout I was interested in.

I took some selfies with people, laughed, and generally tried to remain calm about the next 30 hours. Yes, I was planning on running the course solo, or by myself.

Shortly after I quit last year
I’m writing a lot of background information, but it’s really important that I set the stage properly. Bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety run in my family. Fortunately, I don’t have bipolar disorder, but have struggled with depression and anxiety. Mostly, in my opinion, due to gender dysphoria. Yet, worrying is in my nature, and starting a race with it is my reality.

Last year, I tried running the 100-mile course solo, and dropped out at the end of Leg 4 (approximately 55 miles in). I dropped because I did not want to run anymore. I had had a very bad leg 3. I got sick, but had avoided heat stroke. When I finished leg 3, my family brought me a number of slices of juicy watermelon. I literally gorged myself. It was cold, wet, sweet, and so delicious. After eating, I decided to go for one more leg. By the end of leg 4, I could feel myself rebounding, but I was lonely, discouraged, and looking for an out. As soon as I heard another soloist drop, I followed suit. I was happy about my decision until I woke up the next morning, and was able to walk up the stairs. “Dang it!” I thought, I had not left it all out on the trail. “I have something left!!!” I regretted to myself.

The gun goes off! Finally, I can redirect my energy
Since that day, I have run 6 ultra-marathons. 3 50km ultras, 2 50 milers, and 1 100km. I finished
them all! Not just finished, there had been absolutely no points in any of them where I thought to myself, “I want to quit”. So, my anxiety was a little lower this year. I trusted my training, especially my mental training. I had learned a lot, especially on the mental part. The quote I love is “Ultra running is 90% mental. The rest? It’s all in your head.” This year, I set an A goal of under 27 hours, and a B goal of just finishing. I HAD to finish though.

I lined up and the gun went off! At last! I find the hardest part is sometimes the anticipation of a start. Your nervous and have nowhere to direct our energy. Once is was running, I had a purpose, and could work through each difficulty as it came.

Waiting my turn during a little traffic
jam on leg one
Leg one was awesome! With fresh legs, it's easy to set down a good pace. I buddied up with Kristina, a friend and crazy fast runner from my local running club, and Christine, a fellow soloist to who battled out incredible odds last year to finish just shy of the final cutoff. There was a section of narrow single track where a number of us in a hurry got stuck behind a struggling lady. It's tough for me to know what the balance of politeness and assertiveness is and so while my plan was to wait, a more anxious gentleman asked both of us to step aside. Not wanting to be left behind I asked the lady to move over as well. She did and we all ran past.

Leg one was completed 10 minutes faster than last year. It was now 8:45.

I met Virginie and the kids at the transition area. After the town of Hillcrest Mines, the road turns to gravel and starts an upward climb. Eventually, this becomes a mixture of double and single track. This climb continues as runners ascend up Hastings Ridge. My plan, power hike the uphills, and enjoy the downhills. I met Mark, an ultra running friend from Red Deer. Mark asked how I was doing, chatted briefly before hurrying up the hill. I had not trained with poles and so I was not planning on using them. A young 13 year old boy passed me, part of the sponsored high school team from the Crowsnest Pass. I was so impressed with him! It's so nice to see a younger generation getting involved with the sport. After I reached the summit of Hastings Ridge I let loose into a comfortable run. When behind me I hear "Stephanie!" It was Carrie, a friend from my run club. We ran together for a bit but she was going a little fast for my liking. She went ahead and we began a nasty climb where I caught up. Carrie ducked under some deadfall but came up too quick. She rose up into a pointy stub of broken branch. I could see instantly that this was not going to be good. Carrie looked stunned for a second and took her hat off, telling me she could tell she just split her head open. I looked into a nasty gouge, already starting to bleed heavily. Carrie was smart and immediately began to call back for help. The aid station was not far back. Carrie began to move back and reluctantly I began to move ahead.

This is where I began to see a difference from last year. Last year I was still fresh. But for whatever
My cousin and her daughters soul healing smile!
reason, my legs were starting to get tired already. "Good," I thought, "I need to get used to running on tired legs if I want to be successful at this sport anyway... Bring it on!" Phillip Lagace greeted me near the end of leg 2 and soon after I saw 2 of my Kids: Baden and Mimi waiting for me. How wonderful it was to see their faces! Thy clapped and jumped, cheering me on as I drew closer. As I passed they ran with me to the solo tent where my Wife and Daughter were waiting with open arms. It was 11:30am.

My cousin Janna and her Husband Joel had shown up to say "Hi" and wish me luck. They brought their young daughter, who appeared to not even be 1 yet. I smiled at her and received a gracious smile in return. It was medicine for the soul. Another round of hugs and I was on my way to Leg 3.

Duking it out during the heat on leg 3.
Leg 3 and 4 were to be my battleground. They are hot and relatively unshaded. I was anxious to get them done and over with. "You'll have more strength once the sun goes down", I reminded myself. Over the ski hill and just before starting the loop, there was Christine. I had caught back up. I stuck with Christine and another Gal all the way through to the first checkpoint. Then Christine was way quicker through the aid station and I had to take out my tailwinds, cut off the corner, and dump it into my soft flask. The whole thing took a while. But, I was drinking and well hydrated. As I left I felt good and ready to climb. Not too far ahead I caught Christine again. We ran together for quite sometime. Always stopping at the puddles to cool off. I ran into Calli and Kate from my run club. Calli joined Christine and I, and we ran together until we arrived at the second aid station. I took my sweet time again trying not to waste my food, and Christine and Calli went ahead. I did not see them again. I set off at a careful pace to see dark clouds rumbling in the sky. It looked as if they would pass me by. The remainder of leg three was tough. I felt out of juice but mentally okay. I was in this for the long haul. As I climbed back up the backside of the ski hill it started to rain. Slow at first but eventually it began to come down harder. By the time I hit the gravel road I was drenched. Still, I was close, so with renewed energy I ran down. There they were! Baden and Mimi were at the same spot to welcome me in. Down we went together. It was close to 5pm.

Upon arrival two things were very clear. I had to ditch my road shoes. Yes... Up until that point I had been wearing my Altra Ones. They are a fantastic shoe, but once the trail and rocks got wet, I was struggling. On went my Altra Superiors. A new dry shirt, socks, and tailwinds. I was ready for leg 4.

Leg 4: Running for chicken noodle soup!
After all that climbing on leg 3, One might think that you will be given a break on leg 4. Not so... the first thing you do is go back up the ski hill. Okay, it's actually not that far up it, but at this point in the race, my heart was pounding furiously in my chest, begging for the top. Because of the temperature drop, and the rain, which by now was falling steadily, I was feeling refreshed, and a little more energetic. I kept drinking and soon found myself running down a forest road. I was making great time. It was then that I received a message from Virginie. She told me they had chicken noodle soup for me at TA4/5. This was the motivation I needed. I ran for chicken noodle soup. As I neared the end, I rounded a corner flying furiously through the mud. My friend Mark was there cheering on the runners. He looked surprised at both my motivation and speed. When I told him what I was running for his comment was "Your Wife must make some pretty damn good soup!". I arrived at TA4/5, and began to look for my family. There was nobody there. I called Virginie. They were running behind, and would be there in a few minutes. I decided to wait, and grabbed some banana's and oranges. Once they arrived, the usual round of refueling (including a nice cup of chicken noodle soup), hugs, more hugs, and best wishes ensued. I went out for leg 5 with my headlamp on. It was 8:00pm.

Not too far into leg 5, the race marshal pulled up beside me as I was running along the side of the road. She asked if I had a whistle, to which I replied I did. A whistle, space blanket, coat, and warm hat are all required items runners must carry for the entire race. We were warned at the pre-race meeting that there would be random checks. "Runners who are not carrying the mandatory equipment will be disqualified" was the warning. With this in mind, I replied quickly that I did, pulling it out of my pack to show that I was being honest about it. She replied quickly that a grizzly had been spotted on the trail, and quickly moved on ahead.

"What?!?" I thought, "Where is this grizzly? ahead? behind? near the trail, in an open area?" my mind
Leg 5: Bring on the Bears...
was buzzing about what this meant. In the end, it mattered very little to me. I was going to finish the race, and if a grizzly got in my way... well... I would politely tell it I'll find a way around him and to continue doing whatever it was doing (provided it was not hunting). As I continued toward Mount Tecumseh, I saw a number of quad's up ahead which included the race marshal. I was not sure what was going on, but by the time I got to the place where the quads were, there were no Bears in sight. An aid station and 10 minutes later, I was at the base of Mount Tecumseh, and needed to turn on my headlamp so that I could see the trail. As I moved farther and farther up the trail, it became clear that the trail conditions were getting worse and worse. At literally every low lying part of the trail, there was a large pool of cold muddy water. It looked like runners before me had tried to get around them by using the bank. Some may have been successful, but the prints of sliding shoe prints going towards the muddy water gave hints that navigating around them would both slow me down, and would not likely be successful anyway. I opted to just go through them. "10 km to the next aid station, and then I'll be going downhill again. The trail will be wider and easier to navigate. Just be patient and do your best to get there" I thought. I ran that script over and over in my head, forcing myself to focus just on this one spot, and not get overwhelmed.

The mind is amazing. Although I've not looked anything up, and I'm totally theorizing at this point, I'm fairly confident in saying that the body will obey the mind. If the mind says "I'm done", inflammation goes up and energy goes down. If the mind says, "I feel great", inflammation goes down and energy goes up. I had been waiting for checkpoint 5b for seemingly forever. I was now death marching toward it patiently, but the patience was wearing thin. Before a river crossing I slipped and went down into the mud. When I got up I was drenched in the stuff. Fortunately the river crossing was nearby. During the day the cold water was a god send, but now, by the time I had washed the mud off my hands, I could barely move them because they were so cold. I was tired, sore, discouraged, cold, and still not at checkpoint 5b. We ran through a campground and I could see the campers roasting marshmallows by the warmth of the campfire, and yet, here I was, in the middle of nowhere, freezing my butt of in an attempt to do something which was impossible anyway. Such was my state of mind when I arrived at checkpoint 5b. I refueled and discovered the distance to TA5/6. It was 9.6km away. I nearly fell down and cried.

At this point in the race I was just death marching my way to TA5/6. I picked up my phone, noticed I had reception, and called Virginie. I told her I was sick of this, and that I did not think that I could continue. She listened, and told me that we could talk about it when I got to the transition area. Runners would come by and encourage me. "Just keep moving" they would say. They were right. In due time, and much to my surprise, I saw the warm glow of tents an the bottom of the hill. I had been so lost in my own misery that I had forgot all about the time. I had arrived!

When I arrived at TA5/6 Virginie ushered me into the food tent and had a chair there waiting for me. She showed me the poles she had procured for me, smiled and said "I got these for you!" My heart was softened. She explained that she knew that I could do this. I had trained for it, and to trust in my training. With some food in me, I felt perhaps I had nothing to loose. I could go out for one more leg. It was 2:00am

Leg 6: Running on trust alone
By this time, after the uncountable number of mud pools I had tromped through, I was not in the best mood anymore. Runners would come by, tell me "good job" and move on. If one talked, my responses were quick and to the point. I would muster a smile, but I felt that my suffering was coming through anyway. Half way up seven sisters I was again ready to quit. It's funny how some things work out. I was moving well up a steep section, vowing to myself that I was going to quit at the next aid station. "I will simply wait for someone to pick me up and take me down this stupid mountain" I thought. Just then I saw lights up ahead! It was the course marshal, the one who warned me about the grizzly. I stepped politely aside as they passed and kept moving upward, muttering to myself about my intention to quit. It dawned on me about 5 minutes later that I could have quit right there. I could have hopped into the back of that quad and got my ride down the mountain. I laughed to myself that I had missed that opportunity. "You idiot!" I chimed to myself. Oh well... onward and upward I climbed.

7 sisters mountain. Runners summit on the
right hand side.
I reached the first checkpoint after considerable patience. Shortly before I arrived I told a fellow soloist named Steve that I was planning on dropping at the next checkpoint. He said that the climbing was almost over, and that it was only a few kilometers to the summit. Once again, I felt my heart soften. If I had come this far, "surely I can get over this DUMB MOUNTAIN!" I thought to myself. Upward I went. The sun rose shortly before I summited. I was finally able to look over to the other side of leg 6.

Once over the top, I felt that I could run again. Really, it was just the "ultra shuffle," but I was making way better time just doing that. I was reminded about great runners. People like the winners. They are all very consistent. You don't really have to go fast at an ultra marathon, you just have to keep on moving.

Once more I found myself discouraged, and practically falling asleep. At nearly the same place I called my Wife Virginie and talked to her. "It's taken me 2 hours to go 10km, and its been torture. Leg 7 is 10km, I dont know if I can do it... I am not strong enough..." I mumbled through the fatigue. "Just get to the transition area" she reminded me, "I have hot ramen and food for you." "Hot ramen..." I thought, "That actually sounds really good." I mustered all the strength I could to make my way as quickly as possible to Virginie. I crested, and descended the hill to the transition area where I was once again met with cheers, encouragement, and the smiling face of my Wife. Leg 6 was finally done. It was 9:15 am.

No red. Beck's brain is shutting down.
In the book "into thin air" is the account of an expedition to Everest that went horribly wrong. The group chose to summit the worlds highest mountain late in the day, despite fatigue and other complications that had led them to the decision they now had to make. They chose to summit and the impending disaster that ensured is one of the sad tales of mountaineering. There is an amazing survival tale though. Beck Weathers had collapsed on his way down from the summit and was freezing to death in the blizzard that had already caused much of the exposition to perish. At this moment Beck Weathers caught hold of the memory of his family. TED Talks has a video where the presented shows what he things likely was happening in the mind of Beck Weathers. As
Red in the center: Beck begins to
think about his family
Beck sat in the snow, slowly freezing to death, his brain also slowly began to shut down. The brain scan showed no "red" activity in the brain. Beck began to think of his family, and thus began the miracle. A tiny red-spot showed up in the middle of his brain (again only a theory according to the presenter). As Beck continued to focus on them,
brain activity continued to increase. He willed himself to get up and start moving. He wandered for hours until he stumbled back into camp IV where assistance was rendered. Beck was not expected to survive the night, and his face and hand were severely frostbitten. Yet, Beck lived to tell his tale. For the whole story, follow this link.

The human body is an amazing thing. It can rebound from the most unimaginable lows, to conquer amazing things. I had been thinking of Becks story, and felt that despite all the negativity I had allowed, that could all change now. I ate, kissed my Wife, announced "See you in 2 hours" and set off on the final 10km of leg 7. I was going to complete!

With thoughts of the finish line in my head, and convinced that with even a tiny spec of hope and positive energy, great endurance can be found, I made my way up Wedge mountain, through the single track, and toward the last checkpoint where the volunteers announced with a smile that I was 97 miles in. I continued to pound out the miles while nurturing my mind. In time, I finally saw the water tower, then houses. As soon as I was in the community of Crowsnest Pass, residents cheered as I ran past. Through a field, then on to the side of a road. Up ahead was Alissa St. Laurant. We exchanged hugs and congratulations and on I went. Through the temporary RV park, left toward the arena, and finally right to the finishers chute.

There are not words to describe what it was like to run down the finishers chute. The crowd around the finish line had already began to applaud. I could see my youngest two: Baden and Mimi waiting to run the final stretch with me. As I rounded the final corner the finish line in all its glory came into view. It welcomed me with the invitation "you can stop running now!" I ran through the finish 28 hours, 18 minutes and 5 seconds after I left the start line.

My shirt from the Iron legs 50 miler says "Wanted: individuals who will run, walk, and crawl over steep mountain trails, all for the glory of crossing the finish line."
I remember seeing the race director Brian Gallant pass out bottles of wine and medals to the solo finishers last year. I was filled with regret! Brian smiled and congratulated each one who had conquered his crazy course. After exchanging hugs with my family, and Gary and Linda Sigsworth, dear friends who have allowed us to stay in their home for the past couple of years,
Brian came with a bottle of wine. He smiled, congratulated me, and said "I'm so glad you were able to complete this year Stephanie!" I felt like I would cry. Lisa gave me a hug and then I saw Christine! She had finished just a few minutes before me.

My final thoughts? This whole experience could not have happened without Virginie. I cannot say that enough. I would likely have quit except that she continued to remind me that she believed in me. She loved me, and she knew that I could do it. When I heard her encouragement, I could feel that tiny spec deep within my mind begin to grow. So long as I continued to nourish it, it continued to grow, grew into a successful race. My heartfelt thanks goes out to Virginie and my children for their loving support.

I've said it before in this blog, but when we love someone, anything is possible. We can overcome so much when we feel loved, supported, and trusted.

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