This time a week ago I was relaxing after my best race ever. The weather was perfect, the race was impeccably organized, the trails were a blast, my crew was incredible and for the first time ever (drum roll please…) I didn’t bonk!!!
The Grizzly Ultra was an incredible success. Tony, the race director was full of energy, had all the volunteers working like a well oiled machine, and made sure to cheer every single competitor into the finish, even ten hours after the race started! There is no question that Smith Events can put on an amazing event. And they are already planning for next year’s Grizzly (this was the inaugural year) as well as adding a couple more events to the series in other locations in the Rockies.
Keith and I camped overnight in Canmore, in a campground that we thought may be full with racers (boy were we wrong…we were the only tent!). I didn’t sleep very well, but even though it was cold, I had my sleeping bag open the whole night because I had one layer for every kilometre that I was planning on running … or at least it felt like it (haha).
We woke up at six and hit a coffee shop on the way up to the Canmore Nordic Centre where the race was being held. We cooked breakfast in the parking lot (to a few funny looks) and I enjoyed my oatmeal, greek yogurt and holy crap about an hour an a half before start time. Keith buzzed around scoping out a comfy spot near the fireplace in the Nordic Centre to chill and making runs to the car to get different bags of gear. I drank water and coffee and relaxed, organizing my hydration pack and food. At about 8:15 my friend Sarah and her team arrived. Sarah has just started getting into running and jumped on my suggestion to put in a team. It was awesome to have them there for the day! We took turns taking trips to the bathroom and geared up. Even though we were starting at the same time on the same course I made it clear to the team that they were not to stick with me, unless of course they found me crying in a ditch. I had no idea how the race was going to go and I wanted to be free to suffer on my own if I had to.
At just before nine we headed out to the stadium. The Canmore Nordic Centre was the venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics so it is big and open, truly world class. The other thing to note though is that the ski trails (and climbs) are also olympic worthy. Not quite like climbing the mountains that are right behind the trails, but there were a few that were pretty steep.
After shivering through a briefing, we were off! It was chaos. So many runners. Kerri (1st leg of Sarah’s team and my former room mate) and I shared a high five and she moved ahead. I trotted along, taking my time enjoying the energy. As you might have guessed by my intro, bonking has been a bit of an issue for me (ok, that’s an understatement). I’ve raced two marathons and a fifty three km before this, and in all of them I go out WAY too fast. My first marathon I bonked at like 20 km (talk about carcass drag after that), in the 53 km it was only with about five to go, and this summer in my other marathon it was with about four to go. Since this was my first trail race, I knew how absolutely crucial it was going to be not to go out too hard. The hardest climbs were in legs three and four so knowing I needed to save up for that I started out nice and easy. I was carrying my gps in my hydra-pack instead of on my wrist so that I didn’t get demoralized by seeing my min/km. I really was out just to finish with a smile, and plus, as I came through the stadium I knew i’d be able to see the race clock.
I chatted with a few people, watching some of the relay members take off and seeing almost immediately who was likely soloing. At what I guess what about 4 km in I caught up to Kerri who’s turkey was talking from the night before. I had to pee already. Badly. The two water bottles and big cup of coffee were running right through me and I have the smallest bladder in the universe (trust me, no one likes road trips when I’m along!). I was a bit embarrassed though, as there were still tons of people around and it was so close to the start. Kerri reassured me just to go, that I didn’t want to cause myself any undue discomfort; there would be plenty of that later. So I ducked off into the trees, to a few whistles and laughs from the other runners. I was the first of MANY to be taking a pee break!
Afterwards I felt much better and settled in comfortably. The first leg was 14 km of rolling hills. Nothing too hard at all, just what we needed to get warmed up and it was over before I knew it (ok, I had to take two more pee breaks haha). I came through the transition and left within a minute. Keith, and Sarah’s team were all there just like a nascar team! One person had coffee, one had a cookie, one had a gel and one was ready to fill my hydration pack! It was perfect! They were really incredible the whole race, cheering for me and taking all thinking out of my “transitions” (which i’m using for lack of a better word…they were just the pit stops between legs).
I headed out for the second loop (12km) feeling good. I knew it was going to be a bit more climbing so decided that I would start hiking some of the hills on this loop. A few km in I realized that after this leg I would be over half way done! The way the legs were broken down were perfect for me. I never once thought of it as running 50km. I just took it one leg at a time and it was only at 45 heading out on the last leg that I even reflected on the full distance.
This leg was uneventful. I chatted with a few guys and spent about 20 minutes telling one about i2P. He had just started running about 5 months ago and this was going to be the longest he had ever run. He was excited to hear about Running the Sahara and promised to look it up. Another guy overheard us and told me about how he had run in Calgary with Ray for Canada OneXOne. It was his 50th ultra distance in his career and he was excited to share how much Ray had inspired him. I always love hearing stories like his!
Leg three was the toughest, and also my favourite. Right at the beginning I stopped to pee and frustratingly six people passed me. As soon as I started up again I resolved to count the people that I passed until I had regained my position. Now I know this is a bit stupid, but it provided something for me to think about. Leg three was all single track mountain bike trails. It descended for what seemed like forever with really tough footing and steep trails. I started passing people right away and was having a ton of fun on the varied terrain. My toes were complaining a bit from continuously jamming against the front of my shoes and I was starting to want to start climbing again. Now I should say that I have never considered myself a great climber and was pretty nervous for this loop. I’m not even sure where this started, but I have said over and over again that climbing isn’t my forte. And I don’t even have experience climbing! With that being said, this leg completely changed my thinking! As soon as I started to ascend I was passing many more people. Even though I had exceeded the original goal of six, I kept counting which turned into a game for the rest of the race. Each time there was a climb I would run a bit and walk a bit, setting a goal for the percentage I ran each time. I just kept getting stronger and stronger and was truly loving it! There was even a steep one that I had my hands on the ground, but I just kept pushing and forcing myself to run as soon as I reached the top.
I couldn’t believe it. Not only was I rocking the climbs, I was loving every minute! The burn, the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment at the top of every one of them was incredible! At one point I was expressing how much I was loving it and a lady said “Clearly you have reached your runner’s high!” and I certainly had. I was pushing my pace, passing people like crazy and feeling amazing! When I came into the transition after the 12 km I was ecstatic! I ran right up to my ‘nascar’ team and said “I passed 29 people that loop! I love hills! That was amazing! I want to do it again!” I was beside myself with glee!
With only 12 km left to go and two loops, I was ready to really start to grind. I knew I’d started nice and slow, was coming off the hardest leg with lots of energy and was beginning to taste the finish. The fourth leg was only 7 km but it was single track again. It began with a long switch backed climb where there was enough tree cover to have a little snow here and there. There were lots of roots and rocks and I had to continuously repeat “focus, focus, focus” to keep my brain present. I continued counting the people I was passing and because of the switchbacks was able to set goals for who I wanted to pick off next. Unfortunately after catching up to a group I ended up following them off the trail and of course it was down a hill. Luckily I only went about 150 metres before realizing the mistake and ran back up with renewed energy to catch the people who had not made a mistake.
Now I guess you can see that i’m a bit of a competitive person. As a former high performance short track speed skater, I have competition in my veins. But the thing that I love about running is that I’m only competitive with myself. The game that I’d created about passing people had nothing to do with beating the people I was passing and everything to do with encouraging myself to push forward and keep doing my best. I love that in long distance running everyone is so supportive of others doing their best, and it’s not head to head enough that when one person does well, it may mean that you were beaten or didn’t do your best. (Oops – digression!).
This leg did seem to stretch on and on though. I was coming down from the high of leg three, concentrating hard on not getting upset about going the wrong way. And since the trails were technical and the trees tall I wasn’t able to look around and appreciate my surroundings as much as I’d have like to. I kept thinking that the next corner would be the end, and it kept not being. The trails were close enough to the stadium to almost always be able to hear tidbits of music or catch the sound of the announcer, so it tricked me more than once into thinking I was done.
Finally though I was back on the main ski trails for a few hundred metres before descending back into the stadium for my last transition.
At this point I was still feeling great. Back in leg three before I started to pick up my pace, I’d thought to myself “I could easily be doing more than just 50km today – I simply would just continue with this pace instead of picking it up”. It was such an awesome realization. I really want to get into longer distances but have been intimidated. And that realization gave me the confidence to know that I could do it. But with only the 5km loop left I was ready to leave it all on the trails. It was a foreign feeling for me going into the last 5 km of a race with energy. Like I’ve mentioned, this is about where the bonk takes over. So I threw myself into it. After the fourth loop I was at 41 people passed, so I made it my goal to pass nine more – one for every km I’d run that day. The people were fewer and farther between so I had to push. And the first 1-2 km was all climbing. I kept telling myself that there was no reason to walk the hills, that with only 5 km to go it was far more worth it to run. This didn’t always work, but did help. I just kept getting more and more excited with every person I passed. This leg took us through my favourite part of the Canmore Trails, a huge meadow with about 8 mountain peaks within sight. It was all I could do not to whoop with happiness.
With what was about 1 km to go I finally passed my 50th person and was pumped. It was finally setting in on me that I was running 50 km. I couldn’t believe how great I felt and how much I didn’t want the race to end. But end it would so I picked it up again for the final hill before the descent into the stadium. On this hill a guy wearing a green shirt who I’d been chasing for about 10 km started walking. Each time I’d gained ground on him previously, he had taken back his lead almost right away. But I saw my chance here. Knowing that the race would be over after this I pushed as hard as I could up the hill. I kept repeating “green means go” every time I looked at his shirt and finally caught him. As I passed him he let me know that he thought I was crazy for running this one, which made me proud. As I sprinted down the last hill into the finish I couldn’t help the huge grin on my face. I had loved every second of the race, done my best, learned about myself, increased my confidence and exceeded all of my goals! Keith and our friends were all at the finish line cheering and I hurled myself into hugs all around! It was such a great feeling!
I hadn’t planned on this being so long, but even now I feel like there is so much I missed. Re-living each leg is so vivid in my mind. I wish I could through a mind video on so that each view, each feeling, each moment was captured.
While I’m proud of many things in that race, the one that I’m most excited about it my new found confidence of climbing. I really didn’t think that would ever happen and I realized that like Ray always says, it’s 90% mental and the rest of it’s in your head. Left over from my skating days, and from growing up isolated in the north, I have a strong mind. I make up for my physical short comings with my big heart and climbing is no different. I can’t wait to test myself again!
Thanks again to Smith Events, the wonderful volunteers, Sarah and her team and of course Keith for making the day so incredible!!! The full race results are here: http://www.winningtime.ca/index.php?content=12grizz
ps. I’m currently searching for a 50 mile or 100km race in March or April and need suggestions!!! Let me know if you have a good one!
pps. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten Sarah’s pictures of the race yet. Her boyfriend was in charge of pictures after I told Keith to “put the camera away, I need water!” on my first trip through the stadium. Hopefully there will be a few good ones!