Sunday, September 11, 2016

Footsteps in an Old Forest

Haliburton Forest Trail Run, September 10, 2016  
In his book, A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning, Don Allison describes the terrain of the Haliburton Forest Trail Run as “runner friendly.” And in comparison with other events around the world, I suppose it is. There are no mountain passes or glaciers to traverse, no sand dunes or swamps to be swallowed by. Little danger from mountain lions or poisonous reptiles. But for me, a runner with minimal experience running in extreme conditions, I love the challenge and beauty you can find in this event.
The Haliburton Forest is a private nature reserve under a canopy of ancient hardwood trees about 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto. The race is 23 now years old, a testament to its popularity as well as to the longevity of its director, the venerable and unsinkable Helen Malmberg.  There are several distances offered on the menu: 100 miles, 50 miles, 50k, 26k; even a 12k for those who want only an appetizer.
I was running the 26k, what I called once again the Fun Run.
As befits a forest, there are lots of rocks and roots, steep climbs, and luge-like descents. There are bogs, whereat you have to decide whether the wet logs laid across them will provide enough support and traction so that you won’t be catapulted into the mud (I was just once; it was a nice soft landing).
Last year I participated in this race and suffered a lot. I hadn’t been expecting the way the dodgy footing and pre-Cambrian topography would slow down my pace. I hadn’t anticipated the amount of hopping, skipping and jumping (and not running) that is involved in negotiating a forest trail. It was the slowest 26k I had ever run and I felt chastened and somewhat discouraged. In my blog post after that race, I made a list of things I thought I had done wrong: inappropriate shoes and clothing, inadequate nutrition and hydration, unrealistic expectations.
This is the shoe. I had two of them.
This year I brought all the gear I felt I needed and left behind the expectations. And I had a great time. The weather forecast was iffy, calling for rain around noon. But the morning was great for a run: lightly overcast and about 18C.
Some of the route appears to follow trails that are such by virtue only of the fact that several people have passed over them at one point in history. At times the orange flags marking the course seem to have been arbitrarily set in the middle of the forest primeval. But there is indeed a path and it did take me to the cheery aid station volunteers at the 13k turnaround and home again. I went off the rails only once and it was my fault – I thought I was at a different crossroads than I really was. As soon as I realized there were no trail markers in sight, I reversed and got back on course.
The good news was that although I still wrestled with my own inner timing and pace expectations, everything else worked beautifully. My Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes were perfect for the paths and often-slippery rocks, and I made good use of my Nathan hydration system, stocked with lots of gels. I was well hydrated and nourished the whole way.
Attractive finisher's medal, no?
The other good news is that the training I have been doing this summer has left my body in relatively decent shape for a trail race. There are few things as encouraging as asking your legs for more power after you’ve been running for three straight hours – to skip like an Irish step dancer over tree roots and rocks, to scramble up a steep rock, to charge down the road to the finish – and to feel them respond. I managed to shave some minutes off my time from last year, but more importantly, I ran to the finish feeling fresh and inspired. Last year I walked the last 2 kilometres.
In the last 45 minutes of my run it started to rain, although I was protected by the thick green canopy of the forest till the home stretch, which is along a gravel road. In any case it was a mild day, and when I came out into the open the rain felt refreshing and welcome. I recognize that this might not have been the case if I had had many more hours to run.
This event was a warm-up for my goal race this year: the Run for the Toad 50k, which is in three weeks. I still don’t know if I can run 50k, so the adventure – as it always does and always should – lies in the unknown.
As I write this on Sunday morning, runners not far from here are finishing the longest distance of the Haliburton Forest Trail Run – 100 miles. They have been running since 6 a.m. yesterday. Overnight it seems as if we have passed over the divide between summer and fall. Although the sun is shining brightly, the temperature has dropped about a dozen degrees since yesterday. Part of trail running is dressing for the conditions, and I hope they all did. They are a unique breed of human, and as always, it is a special treat to be running in their footsteps.