Yes, I have a magic number. Now it’s not magic in that I believe it has any supernatural traits. No, it’s actually more like this number gives me the ability to remember what I am capable of when I am feeding off of my last ounce of energy, physically or mentally. Repeating this number to myself, as if invoking my brain for some special power it didn’t realize it had, is a way of getting myself through some tough challenges.
So what is my magic number? Well up until August 10th it was 42 ( and if I am going to be really specific 42.2). That’s right in kilometers that is the distance of a marathon, of which I have run 2. This is no great feat, as many people have run this distance, but it does provide a keen sense of mental awareness of what your body can achieve. Just knowing the distance you can push your body to run, translates to being able to push yourself in so many other aspects of life. For myself it has become a mantra I say to myself when the going gets tough. During a long hard day in the mountains I can draw energy from this number, if I can run that distance surely I can tackle the physical and mental challenge I currently find myself facing.
What happened August 10th? Well that was the day of my first 50km ultra trail race, the Arc”teryx Squamish 50. I tried to post updates regarding my training as the months passed, but as I mentioned in a previous post, this did not pan out as well as I hoped it would. Nonetheless race day came, despite my inability to catalog the months and days leading up to the race. So here are a few thoughts on how that day went.
Race day was forecast to be 28 degrees (celcius) but feel like 31, so I was concerned about running in the heat. But when I woke up to a cloudy sky in Squamish I was so thankful! Driving down to catch the bus to our respective races, Leigh to his 23km starting line at Quest and me to the 50km start at Alice Lake, we could see the sun streaming through the clouds above the chief. Beautiful though it was, I hoped that the sun would duck back behind the clouds for just a few more hours.
Arriving at the start line, with 1/2 an hour to spare, I seen the familiar faces of friends also running the race. It helped to calm the nerves, just a little bit, and the excitement and energy I could feel coming from everyone was palpable. We chatted ,we stretched, we bounced around with nervous anticipation. For most of us this would be our first ultra marathon. This was a distance I had never run before, which meant a lot of unknowns existed. Could I run this distance? Will I bonk…no wait WHEN will I bonk? Do I have the mental strength to keep going?
I tried to push these negative thoughts from my mind as they served a very passive purpose. What I needed now was action and positive motivation. As silly as it may seem self affirming talk really works in these kind of situations for me. Talking to myself as though I am looking on as an outsider, “Spring, you know these trails. You are a strong runner. You have trained for this. You eat well and take care of your body. You are a strong runner.” This self-affirming talk would come in useful several times throughout the race.
The first half of the race was a part of the course that I had run several times before ,during training. It was familiar and I knew all of the ascent and descent of that portion. In a way it was helpful to know when to push it and when I needed to hold back, based on what I knew was ahead. Plus I was keenly aware of the biggest ascent of the course, the infamous Scheisse climb. In my mind I told myself that once I had that in the bag, the hardest part of the day was over. I was pacing myself quite well for the first 10km -through Bob McIntosh, Dead End Loop, Ed’s Bypass and Cliff’s corners – but when I got to the downhill portion of the logging road just before Scheisse I decided to let gravity do the work, opened up my stride and barreled down this section. It felt good to let go and I was having fun! Then came the climb, I was not dreading it, I was ready to tackle it and get to the top. I think all of the time spent in the mountains going up helped me out on this section, as I ended up passing quite a few people on the climb. My legs felt strong and I think at one point I may have even cracked a smile as I thought about how great it was to be doing this.
Once at the top I knew there was a well deserved downhill section coming up, but I wasn’t too excited about it. The trail was so dry, dusty and slippery and so steep that I ended up losing some of the ground I gained on the climb. People started to pass me. I tried to keep the best pace I could, but knew I still had more than halfway to go.
I was now on one of my favorite parts of the trail, running through Fred’s & Word of Mouth, on my may to Quest. It’s a mix of wooden slat bridges linking up undulating trail that winds through fairy-tale like rain forest. I don’t think I fully appreciated it during the race, but thinking back, it really is quite a beautiful and unique course.
Making it to Quest was an onslaught for the senses. Coming out of the forest and turning the corner to suddenly come upon cheering spectators, volunteers asking to refill your water, tables filled with sliced watermelon & oranges, chocolate chip cookies, chips, salted potatoes, bananas…it was like I burst out of my little running bubble into another world. I downed as much watermelon and orange slices as I thought I could without upsetting my stomach, within the minute I gave myself, and then I was off again. I didn’t want to linger, although it was tempting.
Now it was time for the unknown part of the course. The part of the course I had not yet run. Come to think of it, I had never been on these trails before, so I was not quite sure to expect. All I knew was that I was now running the part of the course that was the beginning of Leigh’s 23km race. Which meant I was more than halfway!
Up! That is the only way to describe what came next. To say it was unexpected is a bit of an understatement. I thought about Leigh and wondered how he fared in his race, especially starting the race with so much uphill. I heard several runners commenting how unexpected the switchbacks were, I guess quite a few people had not run this section of the route before either.
One thing I noticed, which I did not see during the road marathons, is how concerned other trail runners were for each other. As someone passed they would always comment ” great pace”, “you’re doing a great job” or “how are you feeling?”. It was a great sense of camaraderie out there.
Once passed the climb after Quest there was an unexpected station of 2 volunteers handing our freezies. Oh my god!! It was amazing! It was sweet, cold and refreshing…and to these 2 volunteers I can’t thank you enough!
Soon thereafter I passed one solitary spectator sitting at his car sitting under an umbrella on one of the connecting forest service roads. He was there cheering the passing runners. It really boosted my spirit to see him sitting for what must have been hours giving the runners a much needed “you can do it!”. I smiled at him and asked if I could have a high five, at which point he laughed and obligingly said “of course” and high fived me as I passed. I smiled and couldn’t help thinking how great it felt at that moment to be running.
The rest of the course was a blur of sore legs, cramping calves, cursing every little hill and happiness that I was doing something even last year I never would have thought to be possible. At the remaining aid stations I drank coke (which is something I never drink), ate salted potatoes and had an intense craving for orange slices. It’s funny the things your body starts to tell you it needs and wants when it needs the energy. I listened to it and felt the better for it.
I knew that after I hit the final aid station, and getting a “good luck” from a familar face(thanks Alexis!) that this was the last push. This was now the easiest part of the route. Physically it didn’t feel like the easiest as I was over 7 hours into the race and was getting tired but mentally I knew that once I made it to the Smoke Bluffs trail it was only a few short km’s to the finish…and all downhill/flat.
I passed several people through this section, and it felt good to feel like I was gaining ground this late into the race. Even though deep down I knew I was finishing much later than I had initially hoped to, I tried to not let this dampen my spirits. I focused on a runner ahead in the distance and tried to keep them in my sights, this kept me running and consistently moving which was the important thing. I just really wanted to lie down. Several times I thought about how nice it would feel to just take a break and lie down in the mossy ground just off the trail. A few high fives from passing bikers definitely helped to reignite the stoke.
Up and down through the trails towards the Smoke Bluffs…so close now! Suddenly the flagging directed us off the trail and cut straight up through the trees and up a granite slab. What?! Everyone at this point was hunched, palms on thighs, striding their way up this short steep hill. It was a killer! At the top was a strategically placed photographer. There to capture the painful smiles plastered across everyone’s faces! “It’s all downhill from here” he said.
Hitting the stairs at Pixie’s Corner I knew this was it. It was all downhill to the parking lot and then a flat run to the finish line. There was one final confirmation as I left the parking lot as a volunteer encouragingly said it was only 2km to the finish. I thought to myself, I have just run 48km the farthest I have ever run what’s another 2 km?
That last 2km’s was long. I have never liked running on flat ground, I would always rather be going up or down. Turning onto to Logger’s Lane I could see the tents ahead which meant the finish line was very close. Several race volunteers were there to encourage us the last few hundred metres. Suddenly the pavement ended and the last 20 metres or so finished on grass. Just then I heard my name being shouted by Leigh and 2 good friends (one already finished the 50km and the other ran the 23km). They ran beside me and cheered me on through the finish line. Little do they know, I had a few tears that I was fighting back at this point. The happiness of finishing, seeing their faces and hearing their cheers was overwhelming. I crossed over the line, a medal was placed around my neck and I was finished. Now I could eat all the oranges slices I wanted and sit in the grass…ahhh just to sit down was reward enough.
As I sat in the grass listening to them announce the overall best finishers I couldn’t help but think about what accomplishments like this teach me. I tend to measure what I do by successes and failures, which are really arbitrary terms we have created to determine our worth based on what our ego tells us we are worth. But really there is no such thing as success or failure, there is only growth and learning through our experiences. In the large scheme of things, running this race holds no purpose to me, other than what I can learn about myself in the process. Learning what I can overcome, what my strengths & weaknesses are and how I can transfer this knowledge to life in general. I wasn’t here to compare myself to anybody else, I was here to run because I loved it and to push myself physically and mentally, to know that I had the determination and strength. To me the person that came in DFL(dead f***king last) showed a strength of character just as deserving of praise as the first place finisher. In the process of pushing yourself past boundaries you become a better runner, a faster runner. But this is really a byproduct of the learning process.
My time came in at 7hr 54min 55 sec, 10th female in my category and 58th finisher overall. My magic number is now 50. What’s yours?