Tuesday, 8 October 2013

And I would run 100 miles......Iron Horse 100 Mile Ultra....

It all feels a little surreal – did I really complete a 100 mile trail race at the weekend? I’ve got one blister under my big toe nail, scratch marks on my neck from where my backpack rubbed, grazes on my legs from barbed wire and bracken, and a swollen right ankle, but other than that, I’ve been in much worse condition after running a marathon which makes things even harder to believe. I’ve also been pretty sleepy since just after 4am on Sunday morning and I’m starting to think that maybe it was all just a dream, and yet I have my medal and I have my punched checkpoint card which can only mean one thing – yes, I did run/walk 100 miles and yes, I did cross that finish line.

Flashback to February 2013 – I reached my 40th birthday and I was reminded of all those people that have a midlife crisis when reaching a milestone point in their lives, when they realize they are getting older and have the urge to do something outrageous to help them cope. I also had people telling me I needed to “slow down” at my age, take things easier, relax and chill out a little. No t wanting to disappoint, I entered my first 100 mile race, knowing that I would indeed need to “slow down” as it would be 38 miles further than I’ve ever ran before, and I’d also be relaxed and chilled doing what I love most – running some of the beautiful trails in Alberta and being at one with nature and my surroundings. And so it was that I signed up for the Iron Horse 100 mile ultra, to be held in St Paul in October.

There are so many other 100 milers that I could have done and I’ve been blown away by the stories and pictures of friends here in Canada that have done some amazing (and indeed enviable) 100 milers in the mountains of both Canada and the United States over the past year. But whilst I love adventure and don’t shy away from pushing myself to the extreme, I’m also cautious, much preferring a “flatter” 100 mile race at my first attempt, to give me the confidence that I can do the distance and learn from the experience, with the intention of going for greater things the following year.

St Paul is located in Northern Alberta, an area renowned for its lakes and endless miles of rolling hills and farmland. It’s not flat but then there are no mountains in sight, and the town itself is better known for the first UFO/Alien Landing Pad (apparently there were numerous UFO sightings back in the 1960’s which prompted the building of the pad), and of course the Iron Horse Trail. The race itself used parts of the old Iron Horse Trail, as well as gravel roads and private farmland, and with around 3000ft of ascent throughout the route, it couldn’t exactly be called hilly although there were certainly some testing climbs at points where really you could have done without them!

The race started at 7am Saturday at the Reunion Station in St Paul. It was still dark and a little on the cool side with a slight frost on the ground. Considering the small field of 120 runners or so – most of which had opted for the 100km or the relay – there was still quite a buzz in the air.

For me, I was scared as hell and was going through a serious bout of paranoia about the Good Lord having it in for me today – I would collapse from exhaustion, be attacked by a pack of wolves, end up in hospital on a saline drip, be abducted by aliens and goodness knows what else. I’d also heard about people that had started to hallucinate in some of the longer races, particularly when darkness falls and the fatigue has well and truly set in, and whilst I can think of worse things to be chased by than a giant Mars Bar, I was a little intrigued and worried by what images my mind could possibly conjure up later on in the day.

Waiting to start and scared as hell!
Another concern for me was the distance. My training hadn’t been typical for 100 mile races and I had certainly not done any back to back long runs. I’d done a 100km race and a marathon a month or so before along with a couple of 50km training runs, but in reality, my weekly mileage had only peaked at 156km with my weekly average hovering around 100km – and here I was, intending to cover more than that distance in just one day!  Thinking about it made my stomach churn and sent me in to panic so I blocked out the distance and focused instead on getting from one checkpoint to the next, trying not to think much beyond the 20km or so between them. The only thing I could be certain of was that I knew I would get to 100km, and I knew that I could run for over 13 hours – beyond that was unknown territory and only by carrying on would I know if I could do it.

120 runners all set to go :o)
There was no rendition of “Oh Canada” this morning – instead we were greeted by rapturous applause and cheering as we all set off on our own personal journey along the Iron Horse Trail, led by a police escort through the town until we veered off away from the roads and hit the gravel pathways.

The first few km were flat and I found I was relaxed and comfortable running solo at an easy 5.30km pace.  It felt terribly slow, but I knew that I needed to pace myself if I had any hope of finishing, so I settled into the rhythm and enjoyed the scenery around me. As the dawn broke and the sun started to raise its head above the horizon, the whole landscape became blanketed in a golden glow, further enhancing the already beautiful colours of autumn in the trees. It was truly beautiful, and I was glad of the slower pace as it enabled me to absorb my surroundings and fully appreciate the countryside around me.

We took a path off to the left, and as I climbed to the top of the first steep hill, I was greeted by an expanse of openness – farmland stretching into the distance, cattle grazing in the fields, birds awakening and singing their morning chorus whilst the dew on the grass made things a little slippy in places and highlighted the spiders weaving their webs that glittered in the morning sunlight.

After a short while, I was caught by some other runners and as we started to chat to each other, we made our first mistake. The route was marked by little green flags approximately 300 metres apart, but we missed one of the flags and carried on down a farm track for a good 5 minutes or more. Realising we’d made a mistake, we trekked back the way we’d come, our error costing us an extra 2.5km on the overall distance! We’d also been warned about a considerable amount of climbing over barbed wire and as we experienced our first ordeal of clambering over a fence into dense woodland without tearing our skin or clothes to shreds, the fence was wobbly and the wire rusty, but thankfully we scrambled over unscathed.

Despite our unintended detour, I got to the first checkpoint at Edward Ville just 10 minutes or so off schedule but thankfully Andy was still waiting for me to make sure I refueled. I was conscious that I needed to eat, and whilst I wasn’t yet hungry, I forced some food down me and guzzled a bottle of chocolate milk and some energy drink before setting off for leg 2.

End of Leg 1 - Edward Ville
I completed the next leg ahead of schedule and missed Andy but rather than wait around, I restocked my backpack with food and drinks, forced more food down me, and carried on. A herd of stampeding cows caused our little group to stop in our tracks as they charged across the pathway ahead of us, but as we continued, we lost sight once again of the green marker flags. We retraced our steps but had no idea where we were headed so followed some blue and white flagged stakes instead (we later found out that the cows had trampled the original markers, and that the stakes had to be used at the last minute!) After about half an hour of running and praying that we hadn’t gone the wrong way again, we finally saw the familiar green flags.

Leg 3 through to Elk Point was quite tough for me and I hadn’t even reached 50km when I started to struggle. It was now around midday, the temperature had risen and the sun was shining. I still had a long sleeved top on, and I think I was just overheating, needed more food and more to drink. The last 7.5km into Elk Point just went on and on and on, and I had the urge to start walking. I was still trying not to think about how much further I had to go, and forced myself to focus on just getting to the checkpoint where I knew I could change my clothes, refuel and refocus.

It couldn’t come soon enough, and I flopped down in the seat whilst Andy grabbed me some soup, a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. He really was a star. Although hungry, I really didn’t fancy anything, but he forced me to eat, and despite my grumpiness, he perservered and I gave way. Sure enough, after 10 minutes or so I had my mojo back, and having changed some of my kit, I was on my way again feeling much better and much stronger. The next time I saw Andy, I would be well over 80km, and over half way – that in itself was enough to cheer me up and put a spring back in my step.

Tired and only 50k in!
Shortly after Elk Point, the 100 milers and the 100km runners split, and as I waved bye bye to my new found friends, I headed off in the opposite direction. I really was on my own now and I knew I needed to be alert for the flags if I wanted to avoid getting lost. A number of narrow woodland trails caused a wee bit of a problem, but eventually I found the route and carried on through. I remember an extremely boggy section, I remember scrambling over yet more barbed wire and being scratched to pieces as the fence wobbled and caused me to stumble into a pile of thorny bushes. I remember talking to myself but I don’t recall the conversation, I remember stopping to treat a blister that was forming, I remember a dog running out to chase me but then it decided it wanted to play, and I remember my legs starting to tire and making the decision to go under the fencing now rather than over, preferring a face full of cow dung rather than anymore scratches to my legs and arms. Other than that, it’s a blur.

Beautiful autumn colours on route

I had already been on the trail for around 10 hours when I ran in to Fort George. The trail leading to the checkpoint was carpeted with leaves from the trees and the colours were spectacular, which heightened my positive mood. I was 88km into the race and feeling fantastic. This time, I willingly ate a cheese sandwich, a cup of soup, and a Canadian version of a Pot Noodle, along with a small bottle of coke and chocolate milk. Dusk was now setting in and the temperature was starting to drop, so as I prepared to leave, I made sure to have an extra layer of clothing and my head torch.

Happy and feeling good at around 80km +
I waved another cheery goodbye to Andy, telling him I’d see him in a couple of hours at Lindbergh at which point, I will have covered 103km - the furthest I have ran in my life. Psychologically, I needed to reach that point as then it was “only” 57km to the finish – I could cope with that.

Still running solo, I headed down to the river and followed the pathway before the flags led us back up the hill and across yet more farmland. With no defined path, it was difficult to know whether I was on the right route, especially with some of the grass being exceptionally long causing the waymarkers to be hidden from view. Thankfully I didn’t make any mistakes and found my way, feeling more and more confident as time went by.

It really was starting to go dark by now, but I didn’t want to rely on my headtorch just yet. I could still see the flags alongside the path so wasn’t too worried, continuing on with my head down and desperately wanting to reach Lindbergh.

As I hit a road section, I saw a runner heading towards me and I realized it was Bert, one of the chaps I had been running with earlier. He’d left me at Elk Point and I hadn’t seen him since, so I was surprised that I had actually caught him. He was in a bad way – not physically although clearly both of us were tiring by now – but mentally, and the negative thoughts were starting to creep in. He’d not seen a flag for ages and he was not happy at having to double back. I personally hadn’t noticed a turning off the road although admittedly I hadn’t seen a flag for a while either, so I headed back up the road just to reassure him that we were ok and on the right track. Convinced that we just needed to follow the road ahead, he ran alongside me for the next few km and sure enough, a flag appeared some 10 minutes later, leading us down to the dirt track trail which would eventually take us into Lindbergh.

Heading into Lindbergh, the flags headed off in the opposite direction despite the lights of the aid station being just 200 yards ahead. I had an inkling that we were expected to do a loop of this small hamlet first, but my companion thought otherwise and continued to surge ahead, only for us to be told we were going the wrong way. It was really hard trying to help him stay positive, to reassure him that we could do this as we both succumbed to the darkness and our head torches made an appearance.

At last, the warm flames of the firepit greeted us along with the smiling faces of the volunteers and cups of hot chicken soup which I wasn’t about to refuse. Once again, I made sure I had plenty of food and drink. I was feeling fantastic – tired, but pretty damn good. I was over 100km, there were only 2 checkpoints left – I was almost home.

Feeling happy at 105km ish - almost there!
The night time running added a completely different perspective to things. The trails became much harder to see, and I became far more reliant on looking for the flags which were now reflected in the beam of my headtorch. To some degree, it made finding the way easier as I looked for the red glow ahead, but where the trails twisted and turned and there wasn’t a clear view, it took a little patience to spot them.

Bert had set off before me from Lindbergh, but I soon caught him. I wanted to stay with him, to support him, but I also now had a goal in mind – I wanted to finish in 21 hours which – depending on the rest of the course and how I coped in the dark – I really thought was a feasible possibility.

The next stretch back to Elk Point was once again flat and I made up a lot of time as I ran along. My torch beam picked out 2 sets of eyes in the bushes ahead, whilst the movement of a branch made me jump but I was relieved to see that it was just a couple of deer going about their business. I turned my torch off for a few moments and it was pitch black – not a sound or sight of anything, not even a moon, and yet those stars in the night sky above looked absolutely fantastic. I spotted a shooting star as stood gazing up, and picked out all the constellations I’d learnt about as a child. It really was an amazing sight.

Leg 6 was soon over and as I ran into Elk Point, the warm glow of the fire lured me in and I was greeted by the cheering and clapping of the spectators. Andy was doing a brilliant job in making sure I was fed, and now that the temperature had dropped, I was really noticing the cold and he made sure I was warm enough given that I would likely slow and end up walking from here onwards. I was now at around 125km with less than a marathon to go, it was after 11pm, and I really was starting to feel far more confident.

2nd visit to Elk Point and feeling much better
even after 125km!
I spent a good 15 minutes at Elk Point, making sure I had food and a warm drink, by which time Bert had caught me again. He was still struggling so I made the decision to run with him for a wee while, partly to help him out, but also from a selfish point of view in that I figured 2 headlamps would be better than one when trying to find our way around the next part of the course.

I ran with him for about 10 or 15 minutes before he dropped off the pace. I felt absolutely awful but I left him. I’ve done far too many ultras in the past where I’ve given up on my own goal to help and support others but tonight, I really wanted to achieve what I wanted, and feeling the buzz, I carried on.

I was making good progress, but after 10-15 minutes of running along a straight gravel road, even I started to get irritated. I was looking for the field that we would shortly have to cross, but that field was taking far too long to arrive and I was impatient. Being so dark, I couldn’t see too far ahead, and the road just seemed never ending - I just didn’t seem to be progressing at all. The reflective flags eventually led me over a wire fence and up a hill into the field. I couldn’t run as there were too many rocks on the pathway and I just kept stumbling, so I know I lost a little time there. I then entered a woodland which heightened my senses as I heard trees creeking in the breeze and rustling in bushes. I again saw a set of eyes reflecting in the light of my torch, but whatever it was didn’t move and from the dark shadow it looked like it was an owl sitting on a branch ahead.

I was heading to checkpoint 7 at Happy Hill, although why anybody would call it Happy Hill I don’t know. It was an extremely steep climb through the woods, impossible to run through with it being so boggy and covered in tree routes and boulders. I could see the aid station ahead, but the path just kept going up and down up and down and it seemed to take forever before I made the final ascent into the aid station. I didn’t need as much food this time, and after a short rest and a quick cup of tea and some nibbles, I set off for the final 19km – 141km done, feeling pretty good, and impatient to finish.

Heading away from happy hill, the other support crews were heading down the road, and as they drove past, I got plenty of cheers and applause which really helped. Bert was nowhere to be seen and having spoken to his mum at the feedstation, she was concerned about him as he was refusing to eat or anything.

The next few km were once again on gravel road, but I really didn’t mind and figured that the more time I spent here, the closer I was getting to the finish. The route eventually headed down a steep hill before heading into more woodland, where I found I needed to concentrate again to ensure I kept on track.

I’m not sure if I had my first hallucination here. For some reason, I thought I saw a small human skull in a tree, and although I knew that was stupid, the image kept flickering before my eyes for the next few minutes. Clearly it was a trick of the light and having laughed at myself for being so silly, I made my way up and down the rutted pathway as best I could in the dark, not wanting to trip and injure myself so late on in the race. I eventually found myself coming out of the woods and back on the Iron Horse Trail and stupidly I thought there must only be another 5-10km left to go – whoo hoo!

I was trotting along and feeling so great, convinced that I might even break 21 hours at this rate if the remainder of the course stayed on the trail, but nope – we turned off – again – up into some trees – again – up a hill and over barbed wire fences – again – and I was angry at myself for getting complacent and letting my mind run away with me.

It was tough running up that final hill, and although my legs were still functioning, I was undoubtedly tired. I fell climbing over the wire fence, and so at the next one, I tried to go under and tore my backpack and clothes. We reached the top, and I really really thought that we MUST be near ST Paul by now – but it was complete darkness, and all I could see was a dark track ahead, no lights, no nothing. I persevered, I picked up the pace, I saw a stop sign ahead and thought we would be turning now and heading back into town, but no – we crossed the road, and just kept going.

My right foot had started to ached somewhat by now, so I started to alternate between running and walking, but the walking just prolonged the agony of heading down that same township road, and still there were no lights. I eventually saw a runner ahead of me and as I caught him up, he was one of the guys that had been doing the 100k. I asked him how much further he thought there was to go and he responded at least another 5km – that knocked the wind out of my sails and I was gutted.

The negative thoughts started then, and I started to moan to myself – “when does this bloody road END??!!”, “How much bloody further??!!!”,  “Bloody hell, this is ridiculous!!!!” My moans and groans were greeted with the howls of coyotes in a nearby field – they were clearly having a great time, and it took my mind off things for a short while.

Eventually, the lights of St Paul appeared and I speeded up, but they just didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and I was still on that same straight road. I started to blub – all I wanted was something to break up the monotony of running down this same road, but there just didn’t seem to be anything. I wanted to see Andy, I wanted to see Wilson and Brandy, I wanted to finish.

And then, at last, the street lights came upon me unexpectedly and I entered the town and civilization. I could see the Reunion Station ahead, and I figured there was only about a mile to go. At almost 4am in the morning, I was the only person on the streets of St Paul, and I was thinking of all those lucky people tucked up in bed, oblivious to those still out there on the trails chasing their goals.

The little green flags guided me back onto the iron Horse Trail one last time, and as I saw the finish line, I was overcome with emotion and relief. I started to run and whilst it wasn’t exactly a sprint finish, I felt pretty good. Andy was there and it was so good to see him – 21 hours 9 minutes and 10 seconds later, I had finished the Iron Horse 100 mile Ultra – 1st lady and 2nd overall. Mission accomplished.

After a couple of hours sleep in the car, we headed back into the station for breakfast and the presentation. What a fantastic and friendly atmosphere, with runners, spectators and volunteers sharing their stories and adventures. Our little “gang” from earlier in the race had all gone on to finish the 100km, whilst Bert bless him eventually finished 45 minutes behind me – what a star to keep going, when I knew he was struggling both physically and mentally.

New found friends - kept me company for about 40km :o)
And so, as I write this in the comfort of my own home, there is still much to tell about my first 100 miler, but I’ve probably bored you to death already. It was a fantastic experience, and I am now more certain than ever that whilst being physically fit can get you through an ultra, it’s your brain that wins it for you. It is much harder to train the brain, but thankfully it’s something I’m managing to do. I’ve also learnt that good nutrition is the key to success and I think I got it right this time – no dizzy spells, no cramps, nothing. Finally, the most important thing of all is planning things out and having the best support crew you could wish for. Andy was fabulous, and he was there for me throughout the whole 21 hours, he made sure I was ok and he looked after me, he said all the right things, and he even made sure I gave Wilson and Brandy a cuddle when he knew I needed to see them too. What an absolute star.

I loved the Iron Horse and it was the perfect event for a first 100 mile race but whilst it challenged me and I now know what to expect, I’ve already found myself looking for something that will push me even harder next year. For now though, 4 ultras, 2 marathons, a half marathon, numerous 10k races and several cross country races later, I think I need to give my body a bit of a rest …. Well, until the beginning of November anyway – there’s an 8km cross country race in Okotoks that is calling my name ;o)

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