Two 50 K races do not a 100 K make

In 2019 I did my two first 50 K races. The first one, Arches Ultra in Moab Utah, was at the end of January. The second, North Face Endurance Challenge California, was in the middle of November. What did I expect, what was the experience in each and what did I learn? All the usual questions for anything. At this stage in my running career it is unusual and  fun to come in to a race as a first timer. I felt little pressure to perform well, “ hey this is not my thing” and so few folks I know have done an ultra so it can be nice and low key. 50 K races are not at all a marathon with 8 or so extra kilometres tacked on at the end. Nope, not all. They are more like the hardest marathon you have ever run but on trails with crazy nutty assed aspects like all slickrock or descents that are steep as hell with those drive me crazy wood steps spaced just far enough that you can’t possibly take a proper stride and are set up like a deranged steeplechase course. Then add 8 K more of the same and poof there ya go, an Ultra.

What did I expect?  Well, I thought a 50 K would be hardish but not too bad at all. I was wrong, straight out wrong. Like 1 + 7 = 17 wrong.

What did I learn – The first one, Arches, seemed very hard, lots of slickrock and hard to find little blue flags that seemingly got harder to find the more tired I got. However hard Arches was, North Face was next level. Uphills which were outrageous and few opportunities for settling into a flow for more than a few hundred metres.  I know this means little to anyone who doesn’t know the Marin headlands well but the hill coming back through Tennessee Valley is Alex Honnold steep. I like hills, I like running hills, I seek out hard hills ( Yosemite Falls trail, yay lets do it one more time, Angels Landing in Zion awesome)  but boy I hated that Tennessee Valley hill. Each ultra is its own beast and so far in the two I have done, jeez louise, both were, though very different,beasts. I learned your mental game better be top notch and finding kindred souls along the course who can identify with your pain, thank you Derrick at North Face, is imperative. Gallows humour goes a long way when you have a long way to go. Food is kinda sorta really important. Hey I don’t even drink water in anything less than a 25 K race let alone eat food. At North Face, I drank and gelled up all through the race but still found myself at 35 K pretty much out of gas. At the 38 K aid station where I would have had to rally to die, I pigged out on a bunch of PB and J sandwiches and some oranges. I may have even eaten a plastic spoon. Within 10 minutes I could feel myself not only rise from the dead but up the last major hill I went running all the way and finished my last 10 K in 43 minutes. There are definitely more emotional/physical swings. Trying to ride out the very low points can be hard and I got through those by knowing I have been there before and knowing that I will emerge. Believing my race will continue stronger is where the mental strength is so vital. The 40 or so marathons that are behind me helped but so did other experiences like lengthy mountain bike trips through wonderful and terribly difficult places like the Middle East and Africa. Knowing that I will always continue helps when the spirit says otherwise.

What was the experience like? Further to what is written above, there is a slight feeling of survival/zombie apocalypse to an Ultra. During the buzz before the start you get the feeling looking around that some of us probably won’t make it back alive. Each race felt “far” as trail races naturally do. The kilometres go by so much slower than in a road race. North Face felt very far but that was mostly because the race was built around six monster climbs and I knew where I was in the race by how many of these I had done. There is a ton of gear and weird contraptions that abound for liquid intake and food consumption. It is definitely not a shorts and t-shirt crowd though that’s exactly what I ran in. The fine mist of the headlands directly north of the Golden Gate Bridge drenched and cloaked me during the early miles eventually giving way to a phenomenal view,  on the  last decent,  of the bridge towers piercing through the thick fog. Whereas Arches offered the muted and pastel colours of Utah. The finish there was not as scenic and the last mile or so took the runners away from the finish before doubling back to it and that “ so close yet so far “ feeling was tough.

Ultras are definitely going to be a part of my running future. I look into the crystal ball and see multiple 50 K races and somewhere soon a 100 K. My long term goal is to run Western States. To do that means running a race of at least 100 K from a specific list of qualifying races just to get into the lottery. Getting in through the lottery could take 4 or 5 years which is fine. I will hone my Ultra skills and try to see each one as a learning experience. I have taken the first two lessons and l am ready for the next. I spend my time searching for an Ultra without some of the more extreme features but that’s like skipping the hard questions in the homework.

 

Flow, just so.

It can be a tired type of day or a well rested kind of day. It can be just about any kind of day but once in a while, on a day with a little running magic in the air it just works. You never know until a couple minutes into the run that just maybe it will be that kind of day. The kind of day when you remember what it was like to be 25 again. Almost invincible we were then. Never tiring and the distance was never too much.

Quick steps fire me up the first few hills but without the tired weighted legs that usually arrive at the top. I am able to do more than the pull of gravity down the backsides, I can push and accelerate, my effort and it’s force combining into speed. Rolling trails have no up and downs now, I feel strong through all of it. I know these trails intimately and wait at the inflection point for the internal voice telling me “ great effort but boy that was tough” thought at the top of the tougher bits. I am shocked when the last dozen metres of the biggest hills are smooth and lack the “ just a bit more “ self talk.

“ Left foot on top that rock, catch the side of the big stone, over that one and before the jagged bit” Technical rocky area are no problem, coming as natural as my breathing feels today. High over the sloppy puddle and straight down after, footfalls are easy and the the flow continues and my thoughts are calm. I can feel the push my leg generates through my foot as I climb hill after hill. So quiet out here in the Don though I yearn to exclaim “ Nice” after each section.

The really interesting and fun part is the last 15 minutes or so of such a run. The part where the 20 K run usually starts falling apart. This is when, on those mysterious days of flowing and freedom, you pull towards the effort. Your breathing become harder but not strained, you are pulling the air in deeper and somehow using more of what it has to offer. The extra speed and power seems to be somehow logical. I am not falling but instead becoming stronger. In those moments when your give back a little, slowing slightly as you stride an incline, the hill challenges you and somehow it is shorted than usual and over you go past the peak with a curious smile as you are descending light and quick. Tall and forward you finish very much surprised that this feeling lasted so long  but knowing that it is gone for now. Till the next day, probably not tomorrow or even the next day, but hopefully somewhere soon because that is sweetness we all seek on the run.

What’s the deal with that hill?

I bought my current home just over 6 years ago. The house being close to the trails in the Don Valley was a huge part of the decision as well I got lucky finding an affordable home anywhere in Downtown Toronto. We all know those days are forever gone. I live on a quiet street very close to the top of the Pottery Road hill, infamous for its grade and the DQ at the top. Nearly every run begins with a reluctant decent into the valley and over the tracks and on to the trails. For every run that begins that way, each will end with the climb back up the hill. It can be a trudge, a sludge, a race, a grind, a hard one, an easy one, a one step in front of the other or a “ man I flew up it today “ kind of thing. I have many runner friends who would kill for a hill like this. Cyclists come from far and wide, well from somewhere, to do repeats on this hill and it’s cousin which goes up to the Loblaws from the intersection of Bayview and Pottery Rd.

So knowing what lies at the end of every run requires a certain mindset to get up it everyday.  My main go to is the “ make a deal with the hill “method. On particularly tough days, super long run type of day, I make a deal with this hill. As the idea of running up the hill enters my consciousness, probably about 5K from the hill, I tell myself “ today you don’t have to run the hill, you will have done enough”. Yesterday was one of those days, a 32 K run with heat and not much rest from Wednesday’s tough trail group. I extend my long run each time out by going further and further south of Pottery Rd and yesterday I went past Riverdale Park. By the time I returned and crested the small hill after the trestle bridge I was was done. I had made the deal 30 minutes ago, no hill today. And yet, but, maybe, well ok and here we go. Up I went, never fails, I break the no hill deal every time. Someday I get extra motivation from the few dollars in my pocket which will buy me a grape soda or two.

A freind recently showed me a trail option for the Pottery Rd hill. Adds about 500 metres I am guessing and much steeper but quieter, shadier and nobody else there.

My deal with my hill is always a broken promise but I feel pretty each time I get to the top.